I grew up eating raclette. My grandparents, who are from Switzerland, always hosted raclette parties around the holidays, filling their Cleveland house with the smell of strong cheese and boiled potatoes. My favorite part was sitting around the raclette grill, an electric table-top device, and using my own little fry pan to toast tiny portions of a meal that lasted several hours. It was a thrill to watch the adults do the same, as if we were all using a Holly Hobby Oven, but with great maturity.
Raclette is a cow's milk cheese made on both the French and Swiss side of the Alps. It melts beautifully, and its strong flavor is tempered by heating it. This is a semi-stinker, nothing to be afraid of; if you like Morbier, it'll go down easy. Many cheese shops and groceries stock raclette (and even raw-milk raclette) around the holidays.
In December, I always host several raclette dinners. It's a cheap, easy way to entertain - once you buy a raclette oven (about $99 from Swissmar) - and friends always remember it from one year to the next, and request it. The eight-person Swissmar Classic Raclette Grill I bought a few years ago is really a dream, since it comes with a grill top - perfect for roasting wursts as a second course.
So, how does a raclette party work? First, you can only invite as many people as your raclette grill can handle (most grills come with 6 or 8 little pans). Then you ask everyone to bring a condiment; cured ham, pickled onions, cornichons and baby corn are the traditional add-ons. My grandmother always served chopped scallions, my mother always provided a dish of chopped, sweet red pepper. As the host, your only real job is to boil a big pot of red potatoes and slice up a hefty wedge of raclette.
When guests come over, break out the lager and fire up the raclette oven. Then plan to sit around toasting slices of cheese on top of boiled potato-halves for, oh, the next two hours. Between cheesy bites, guests can snack on pickled condiments. If you've invited some impatient carnivores, you can offer them wursts and raw onions to grill on top of the oven, or you can create a separate course of marinated veggies or shrimp.
Afterward, our family always plays a traditional game, passed down from my Swiss grandparents. We call it "The Chocolate Game." When the raclette grill is put away, we set out a whole dark chocolate bar on a cutting board, and everyone at the table receives a fork and a knife. Then we pass a dice. Anyone who rolls a six may eat the chocolate bar, using the silverware, but only until someone else rolls the lucky number. The game goes on until the chocolate bar is gone. Usually, there is some hysteria involved.
Raclette grill + chocolate game = perfect holiday meal with very little cooking. It's also a great way to stay warm when the temperatures drop. Just pretend you're in the Alps.
Tenaya Darlington blogs about cheese at Madame Fromage.