The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Recipe: Fonduta

Let's start today's lesson with a quiz: how many of you think that Olive Garden is a real Italian restaurant serving real Italian food? Okay, you in the back row. See me after class. The rest of you are probably like me in that you'll go to Olive Garden if there's no authentic alternative.

It was on just such an occasion that I discovered something really good on the menu and determined to replicate it. I love Olive Garden's take on classic Italian fonduta. Among non-Italian speakers, that's fondue, which, in and of itself, is not really Italian, but a Swiss and French dish of melted cheese served up in a big communal pot. Northern Italians in Piemonte and Valle d'Aosta use a young, creamy Fontina cheese in the authentic original, but Olive Garden does some pretty amazing stuff with mozzarella, provolone, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Pecorino Romano. Of course, they do it with cheap domestic cheeses -- like grated Parmesan and Romano -- but if you make the extra effort to get the real stuff, you'll reap extra rewards.

Here's the scoop:

1 loaf hearty Italian bread, sliced into 1/4 inch slices
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups freshly shredded mozzarella or smoked mozzarella cheese*
3 cups freshly shredded smoked provolone or provolone cheese*
(* It's important that one of these two cheeses be smoked and that the other one be regular unsmoked)
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano
8 teaspoons fresh diced plum tomatoes
Freshly chopped parsley

Arrange the bread slices flat on a baking sheet and cover them with foil. Set aside until ready to use.

Preheat the oven to 450°.

Combine sour cream, thyme, red pepper, cayenne pepper and four cheeses in a large bowl and blend thoroughly.

If serving is to be family-style , spray an 8” x 10” casserole dish with non-stick spray (preferably olive oil spray), then use a spatula to transfer the mixture. For individual servings, spray eight individual heat-resistant serving bowls, such as soufflĂ© cups or ramekins, with the non-stick spray and fill each with 1/2 cup of the mixture. Place the individual bowls on a baking sheet.

Using a large spoon, spread the cheese mixture to create an even surface. Place the casserole dish or baking sheet with the individual bowls on the center rack in the oven. After about five minutes, place the baking sheet with the bread, still covered, on the top rack in the oven. Bake for an additional five minutes.

Remove the bread and the fonduta from the oven. Garnish the casserole dish with diced tomatoes and parsley in the center of the fonduta or divide evenly among the smaller bowls. Arrange the bread slices around the bowl or bowls and serve immediately.

Serves 8

Great as an antipasto with a meal or as part of a party platter. Word of caution: this stuff returns to a solid form pretty quickly as it cools. The first time I served it, I made the mistake of using a fondue pot that was heated by one of those little votive-type candles. Bad move. Direct heat equals burned cheese on the bottom of the pot, the flavor of which taints the whole dish. A chafing dish or other serving apparatus that uses hot water is a much better alternative.

Buon appetito!

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