A Raclette to Remember

My friend Michal is an amazing cook; someone who maintains a carefully-curated collection of recipes — whether from yellowed newspaper clippings or magazines from the 1970s and old cookbooks with broken spines from constant use. But her knowledge of cooking is so deep, her technique so well-honed, we can make the same recipe and it will turn out completely different. She has shared a number of special dishes with me, including a molten chocolate cake; a lime mousse, gravlax and a couple of couscous recipes from her native French Tunisia.

Her family mostly settled in France after World War II, and a brother turned her onto Raclette, a peasant meal popular for centuries on the French and Swiss sides of the Alps. Farmers graze their cows in the mountains to make the cheese, aging 6 kg. rounds for 3 to 6 months. The Swiss canton of Valais is said to be the best source.

When Michal told me she had a racler, a device for melting the cheese, I remembered my first paid gig, as the clean-up helper at a neighbor’s Raclette party. In French, racler means “to scrape.” My neighbors had brought back a device that held a half-wheel of the giant semi-hard cheese, which exposes it to a very hot bulb. The heat melts the top-most layer of the cheese, which is scraped onto a warm plate and served with potatoes and garnishes.

It was my job to scoop up the dirty plates, scrub off the left-over cold melted cheese, wash and dry the dishes, and bring them back for the next round. It just seemed like melted cheese that you put on potatoes and eat before it gets too cold. I don’t remember the taste of it, but I probably wouldn’t have gone crazy for the meal, which sure seemed like a lot less fun than fondue.

Simple Racler Device

So when Michal invited me and a friend to share her Raclette, I had no idea what it could really be like. She brought out an electric grill the size of a toaster oven. It looks something like this:

Multi-Layer Raclette Grill

Under the top-most grill plate is a space for eight flat metal shovels. Various kinds of semi-soft cheese, including Raclette, are placed on the little spades, under the hot grill. The heat from the iron surface melts the cheese, which is scraped off with a wooden spatula — then served with cooked potatoes and condiments.

The top of the grill is used to cook raw meats, smoked sausage, and onions, giving guests are wide variety small bites.

Potatoes and Shrimp for the Grill Top

Smoked and raw meets for the grill top

Michal went all out for this meal, which was originally prepared for her son’s birthday. Following the tradition, she fried fat from a duck breast on the top grill, then added marinated shrimp, various French sausages, duck and chicken breast, red bell peppers, onion slices, and Portobello mushrooms.

For the section under the grill, she laid out a spread of sliced cheeses: Raclette, Brie, Morbier, St. Nectaire and soft goat cheese, Le Grand Caprin. We built little mouthfuls on the spades: starting with sliced, cooked red-bliss potatoes, ham, a French salami, and, at her brother’s insistence, dry-cured beef similar to Bresciola, before topping them with the cheese.

Cheese for a fancy Raclette: from top right clockwise: Raclette, Brie, Morbier, Goat Cheese, St. Nectaire

After the cheese melted, we removed the little morsels and ate them with cornichons, pickled white onions, two kinds of chutney and sauces made with fresh herbs, sour cream and mayonnaise.

In between, we ate the grilled meats and vegetables, embellishing each bite with different mayonnaise- and cream-based sauces and condiments. Sweet and hot chutneys and the pickles helped break through the fatty meats and cheeses. Good crusty bread turns each bite into a great little sandwich.

Raclette accompaniments: spades for melting cheese, wooden spatulas (UL) and condiments

Although the spread is Gargantuan, there’s no need to feel outrageously full while enjoying the meal. The grill cooks very slowly, and the cheese takes even longer to melt underneath it. That slows down the process, so you don’t actually shovel it down your throat, although it helps to use the spade.

Michal’s brother recommends a white vin de Savoie from Apremont, in the Alps of eastern France, which he describes as slightly effervescent. We drank a red Bordeaux called Le Prieure de Lalande, which Michal brought back from Paris, a red wine from the supermarche, too cheap (about 5 euro) to sell here for profit.

A crisp endive salad, served afterward, cut through the heavy feast. But Michal had a surprise for dessert: a ginger-laced Crème Brûlée!

All during the meal, I kept remembering what I was taught as a child: don’t play with your food. This rule was made to be broken — and it’s perfectly ok to do so when you’re eating Raclette.


Farm Bill signed into law, New Yorkers brace for food stamp cuts

President Obama signed the Farm Bill today at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, while the law’s principal Democratic sponsor, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)  said the nearly $1 trillion law, four contentious years in the making,  “works for every American.”
The President praised Democrats and Republicans for coming together to pass the bill, saying, “My position has always been that any farm bill I sign must include protections for vulnerable Americans. And thanks to the good of Debbie and others, this bill does that.”
The measure cuts about $9 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, over the next decade.

Video: SNAP Changes Put Millions at Risk, Say Advocates

 Many advocates for the hungry found themselves sighing with relief at that figure; House Republicans wanted $40 billion in food stamp cuts over the same period.  Still an estimated 850,000 households are set to lose an average $90 per month in food benefits.

“We’re really very disappointed how it turned out, said Hannah Lupien, Policy Director at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger in Manhattan, the nation’s oldest grocery style food pantry.   “Our elected officials and advocacy groups are declaring it a victory. There’s nothing victorious about hungry people losing an average of $90 in benefits every month.”  Lupien says about 25 percent of them are in New York City

Hannah Lupien                               Policy Director                               West Side Campaign Against Hunger

 The farm bill targeted New York and 12 other states (depending on whom you talk to), that qualified people for SNAP benefits by giving them just $1 worth of home heating assistance under a program known as LIHEAP.  Congress viewed the so-called “heat and eat” program as a loophole, and raised the minimum qualifying grant to $20 per household.

WSCAH serves about 11,000 people each month. Before the Farm Bill’s passage, Lupien and her colleagues projected it would be providing emergency food assistance to 128,000 this fiscal year, up from 75,000 in 2008.

“We’re unsure what New York and other states that utilize this program will be able to do to compensate for that change from $1 to $20, says Lupien. “We’re certainly not going to able to keep everyone on the program and certainly the intention of the Congress is to make sure …again, that those 300,000 households in New York, lose their benefits.”

These benefit cuts come on top of the expiration of an emergency increase in food aid in November, which affected everyone on SNAP.  As Margarette Purvis, President of the Food Bank for New York, points out in a February 7th letter to The New York Times.

Charities will not be able to step in and save the day. In New York City, we’ve already seen what happens when SNAP benefits are cut: 85 percent of the food pantries and soup kitchens in Food Bank for New York City’s network saw more people on their lines after across-the-board cuts to SNAP went into effect this past November than they saw in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and roughly half reported food shortages in that first month alone.

Since then, emergency unemployment benefits expired for another 1.7M Americans, during a bitter winter when fresh produce is seasonally unavailable. Senate Republicans blocked an effort to restore the benefits earlier this week.

 “We know that we will see some people who we’ve never seen before  because they’ve lost those $90 in snap benefits. What we believe is that we’ll see a lot of our same customers, more frequently. As opposed to seeing someone maybe once, twice, three times a year, maybe we’ll see them 4-5-6 times a year,” Lupien says.
Meanwhile,  New York advocates for the hungry are turning to the state, to push for an increase in the minimum wage. They’re also working with New York City’s new mayor and City Council to provide universal, free school feeding programs to all children, so the low-income kids won’t have to trade between the stigma of food hand-outs and empty bellies.

Maria Coronado’s First Trip to WSCAH

Back in Michigan, the President likened the bill to a “Swiss army knife,” because it does so much more than just help farmers, it helps jobs, innovation, research, infrastructure, and energy.  He added, “The truth is a lot of folks go through tough times at some points in their lives. That doesn’t mean they should go hungry.  Not in a country like America.”
Congress did increase funding to food pantries by a total $200M over the next decade, but Lupien says, “that $200 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the cuts that have been implemented, really in a war against our low-income neighbors.”
After leaving the food pantry, I stopped off at my local grocery store. It wasn’t lost on me that I could easily go there and buy whatever I needed – or wanted – to eat.  Right in front me in the checkout, an older woman was holding her SNAP benefits card in one hand and, returning a package of coffee, a can of milk and a bottle of orange juice with the other. She didn’t have enough to cover the grocery bill.  As she left with her much smaller bundles, the cashier said, “you still have 20 cents on the card.”
The Pits

The Pits

Nearly every day, I have to report on something that very few people care about: the yields investors receive to buy Spanish government bonds. 

Bond yields are measurement of how much it costs to get a loan.  During this year, Spain’s economy was so weakened, it had to pay 7% to get a 10-year loan.  Consider that US 10-year bonds, or Treasuries, are paying under 2%, and you realize what a burden this interest rate can be.  And who pays for these loans? Spaniards of course. In the form of taxes, mostly. 

But Spain’s people are suffering. The nation is in its second recession in 3 years. Unemployment  is  nearly 25%  Again, the United States unemployment rate is currently 7.9%.

You would hardly notice how badly Spaniards are suffering if you travel through the most touristic cities.  When we toured Southern Spain last month, the highways were spectacular (we even avoided the toll roads without problems). Restaurants seemed full in the old quarters of Cordoba, Sevilla, and Grenada.

But there were tell-tale signs, literally. Everywhere we went, I saw these signs. See the red one that says “Se Vende?”  That means, FOR SALE.

For sale sign in Cordoba, Spain
copyright: Leslie Gersing

The pain in Spain is partly a result of the same real estate bubble we experienced in the United States –a massive construction boom nurtured through the low cost of borrowing money.  Banks loaned money like water from an endless well.

We saw giant, brand-new condominium complexes all along the Spanish riviera; so many units built that they swamped available demand.  Now many of them are ghost towns.    There are so many unsold or foreclosed properties in Spain, the Madrid government is setting up a “bad bank” to purchase the “toxic assets” and sell them off at more than 50% discounts. 

The default rate on Spanish consumer debt just hit a record.  Credit has now dried up or is very expensive to get. If you’ve lost your job, you can’t afford to repay your loans or buy much of anything else. 

I heard a story from Annie, who owns a converted farmhouse in Almeria.  She and the neighbors own groves full of olive and orange trees.  The olive trees were everywhere we drove and seemed to thrive in the arid Sierra Nevadas.

Olive grove in Purullena, Spain
copyright: ljg456

Each year the olives are harvested and delivered to a coop like this one in Ugijar, where they’re pressed to make oil.

Olive oil cooperative factory, Ugijar Spain
copyright: ljg456

But the orange trees are another matter.  Annie said it cost so much to water her own orange trees, she made no money when it came to harvest time.

Annie’s orange trees, near Almeria, Spain
copyright: Leslie Gersing
Annie’s just an ex-pat with a summer home in this rugged area of southern Spain. She’s not a farmer, who depends on these ancient trees to survive.  Annie said water has become so expensive for the locals, many have cut their trees down to nubs. That keeps the trees from dying, but leaves them in a dormant state, so they won’t need much irrigation.
Many Spaniards have also been cut to the quick; well-educated and proud, but forced to move back home with their parents or grandparents.  Their government is cutting budgets, so school books must be purchased; children who need meals must pay more or they won’t be fed.  Government workers are laid off, their pensions are cut; there’s no money for infrastructure. People can’t afford to buy much of anything.
The government raised the VAT to 21% from 18% in September. Talk about a regressive tax: can you imaging having to pay 21 cents on every dollar spent on food? 

Now last week, demand for Spanish government bonds was described as “insane.” What’s insane about this is the growing belief among bond investors that Spain will formally request a government bailout from its European Union partners. Just rumors of that request have driven Spanish bond yields down. Ironically, Spain’s capitulation, and acceptance of strict terms for borrowing money, have helped the euro and European markets rise.
And when demand rises for bonds, the interest rate goes in the opposite direction. So 10-year bond yields are now about 5.46%.  That’s down from 5.66% at the prior auction, and 1.5% below their peak.  But remember, US 10-year bond yields are about 1/3 that rate. 

The problems are not just confined to the Euro Zone’s fourth largest economy.  Portugal received a sovereign bailout and adopted tough reforms to reduce government spending.  Portuguese 10-year bonds are down about 2% since mid-September:  the government  pays about 7.7% to borrow money. You could say that’s a bargain from nearly 18% in January.

On November 14, many Portuguese are going to strike against austerity measures they say are destroying their nation, not growing the economy.  Spanish unions have just announced they are going to take to the streets that day, too. 

It’s worse in Greece, where overall unemployment is above 25%, and about 50% for the young. Tens of thousands went on strike this week, as the government planned to make another $17 billion in cuts and tax hikes in order to secure the next “tranche” of bailout money from the “Troika” of European Union, European Central Bank and IMF lenders.  Many Greeks say Germany and other wealthy nations in the European Union profit at their expense.  Greek animosity showed its ugly side when the head of Europe’s most properous economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was portrayed as a Nazi during a recent visit to  Athens. Some demonstrators blame Germany for keeping an irrationally tight control on the aid spigot, forcing them into practical bondage.

A recent New York Times article mentioned the rising popularity of a neo-Nazi party, which blasts immigrants and people deemed insufficiently  “Greek.”  Robbers are mugging people on the streets, as food and fuel become too espensive for the increasing numbers of newly-destitute.

I just learned that most Greek olive oil isn’t even made by Greeks. Some of my favorite Greek olive oils are actually products of large multinational corporations in Italy or Holland. Greeks just grow the fruit; they don’t own the means of production.

Spanish bond yields sound pretty boring, and complex.   But it’s allowed me to learn a little bit about what happens when governments decide to cut spending as a means to reduce their deficits.

There’s a reason politicians, businesses and economists are divided over the notion of stimulating economies with cash and other incentives, instead of putting themselves on a budget diet. There’s a reason this has become a central argument in the 2012 presidential election.

The next time I buy olive oil, I’ll remember what’s happening in Spain..

Shrimp Bisque Recipe

Melissa Clark’s recipe for Shrimp Bisque is easy and wonderful. I heard her discuss it on “The Splendid Table” but quickly forgot I’d copied the recipe.  It just took me forever to find fennel bulbs last week. Now they’re back — even at my local grocery store.  Here’s a picture of the meal.

Usually, I’m disappointed when I try to reproduce recipes. This one was restaurant perfect. (I did leave out the lemon juice at the end by mistake, but it was still marvelous.)

On a day when it rained, snowed, fogged up, and sleeted, this was a perfect dinner. We served it with slices of baguette and a salad. It was so delicious, I ate 2 helpings. David ate 3!