KATONAH, N.Y. -- My daughter recently described an amusing dinner party she'd gone to, where the main attraction was a novelty to her -- fondue.
As the guests, mostly unknown to one another, dipped and swirled cubes of bread and vegetables in communal pots of warm wine-laced Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses, their inhibitions melted away. By dessert, a decadent milk chocolate-peanut butter fondue, the mood was positively jovial, she said.
Although I'd last made fondue sometime in the '70s, when it was a staple of many hostesses' repertoires, my daughter's friends are definitely attuned to the latest culinary trends.
Fondues, from cheese and chocolate to fried and Asian-styles, are "hot" again. Last November, "Entertainment Weekly" magazine ranked fondue pots as the second-best gift for Christmas; virtually every cookware catalogue and store is featuring them. Sales of fondue pots were up more than 116 percent by the end of last year, compared with 2001.
When you consider the dynamics of these spear-and-dunk meals, the revival isn't surprising. Fondues fit in well with today's renewed interest in home entertaining and our desire for easy-to-prepare comfort foods. The relaxed style gets hosts or hostesses (or moms and dads) out of the kitchen and back with guests or family.
While some fondue recipes have become classics, contemporary pots -- and in many cases what is being dipped and the condiments served with them -- have grown up. Happily, we've moved beyond the notion of "correct" ingredients. Americans are far more adventuresome than 30 years ago and markets are filled with great fondue fixings.
Thinly sliced meats, peeled shrimp and chicken morsels are readily available, as are a large variety of sausages, precut vegetables and exceptional breads.
Fondue has also changed with our desire to eat more healthfully, says Langley Watts, the manager of cast-iron products for Le Creuset. People are preparing more Asian-style fondues. They are dunking vegetables and other ingredients into hot stocks, beer, cider and wine, rather than oil.
When it comes to condiments, grocery aisles offer a global assortment. Pesto? Mix it with the melted cheese, suggests Rick Rodgers, author of "Fondue: Great Food to Dip, Dunk, Savor, and Swirl." You can also add minced vegetables. Roast garlic? Spread it on the bread before dipping. If curry is a favorite flavor, why not add grated fresh ginger and curry powder to Cheddar cheese? Rather than wine in the pot, lager beer would be ideal with it.
Fondue, once thought of passe, is back. So slip into your bell-bottoms and Pucci prints. Along with martinis, this fad of yesteryear is one of today's most entertaining ideas.
Rick Rodgers' troubleshooting tips for cheese fondue:
Are you one of those people (like me) whose favorite part of a bowl of French onion soup is the melted cheese on top? In this luscious fondue, from Rodgers' "Fondue: Great Food to Dip, Dunk, Savor, and Swirl," we get to indulge in our passion.
It's difficult for me to choose my favorite fondue, but if pressed, this would be the winner.
French Gruyere and Caramelized Onion Fondue
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup reduced-sodium beef broth
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 pound Gruyere cheese, rind trimmed and discarded, shredded (after preparation, about 14 ounces, or 6 cups)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon Cognac or brandy
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Crusty French or Italian bread, cut into cubes (leave a piece of crust on each cube).
Roast beef tenderloin, cut into cubes
Tart, crisp apples, cut into slices, tossed with lemon juice to discourage browning
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until the onions are dark golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the wine, broth, and vinegar and bring to a simmer.
In a large bowl, toss the cheese with the flour. A handful at a time, stir the cheese into the saucepan, stirring the first addition until melted before adding the next. Allow the fondue to bubble lightly a few times, but do not bring to a boil. Stir in the Cognac and thyme. Season with the pepper.
Transfer the fondue to a cheese fondue pot and keep warm over a fondue burner. Serve immediately, with dipping ingredients of your choice.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons Marsala wine
3/4 cup dried wild mushrooms, preferably Italian porcini
8 ounces imported Fontina cheese, grated
8 ounces Swiss or Emmentaler cheese, grated
2 to 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 clove garlic, halved
2 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup of the Marsala just to boiling. Pour it over the dried mushrooms in a small bowl. Let stand at least 1 hour.
Meanwhile, toss the Fontina and Swiss cheeses lightly with the flour. Rub a heavy enameled pot or fondue pot with the garlic. Pour in the white wine and heat over medium-low heat until hot. Add the cheese, a handful at a time, stirring constantly and waiting until each addition melts before adding the next. Then stir in the Parmesan.
Drain the mushrooms, squeezing out as much liquid as possible, and chop into fairly fine pieces. Stir the mushrooms, the remaining 2 tablespoons Marsala, and lots of freshly ground black pepper into the fondue.
Serve with assorted breads and sausages for dipping.
Makes 6 servings as a main course; 10 to 12 as an appetizer
(Recipe adapted from Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso's "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook," Workman Publishing, 1985)
For kids of all ages, here's a fondue with the All-American flavors of peanuts and milk chocolate, also from Rodgers' book. Whenever I serve this sinful fondue to self-controlled, respectable grown-ups, they tend to regress, embarrassingly, into greedy little children.
Peanut Butter and Milk Chocolate Fondue
1 cup heavy cream
6 ounces milk chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat the cream until simmering. Transfer to the top part of a double boiler set over simmering heat. Add the milk chocolate and let stand until softened, about 1 minute. Whisk until melted. Gradually whisk in the peanut butter until the fondue is smooth.
Transfer to a ceramic fondue pot or chafing dish and keep warm over a burner. Serve immediately with pretzels or pretzel sticks, brownies cut into bite-sized pieces, bananas cut into bite-sized pieces.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Langley Watts suggests that this Asian hot pot-style fondue, with southern French flavors, would appeal to today's health-conscious eaters.
Prawn and Scallop Fondue Provencale
8 ounces sea scallops, cut in half horizontally
8 ounces jumbo shrimp, cut in half horizontally
Fresh basil leaves, to garnish
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tablespoon tomato puree
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons white wine
3 cups court bouillon or fish stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Divide the scallops and shrimp among 4 plates. Cover and chill until needed. Before serving, garnish with basil leaves.
To prepare the Provencale sauce, melt the oil in a fondue pot over medium heat. Cook the onions, garlic and tomatoes for 10 minutes, stir in the tomato puree, the herbes de Provence and white wine. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Transfer the mixture to an electric blender and puree until smooth. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Clean the fondue pot. Pour in enough court bouillon or stock to fill the pan half or two-thirds full. Heat until the liquid is simmering. Transfer the fondue pot to the table and adjust the flame so the liquid continues to simmer.
Cook the scallops and prawns for 2 minutes. Serve with brown bread cubes, sliced cucumber or avocado wedges and pasta salad for a main course.
Makes 4 servings.