Swiss cuisine in the Colorado Rockies
July 1, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series focusing on the Swiss Chalet at the Sonnenalp Resort of Vail. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first part.
Fondue can be a starter. It can be a meal. For purposes of taking you behind the scenes at Swiss Chalet at Sonnenalp Resort of Vail, it was a starter. A lot more delights on the menu, for you’re able to have a virtual Swiss dining experience in Vail.
Flour and potatoes are two oft-maligned starches. With our active lifestyles, no one living in or visiting Vail Valley should worry about enjoying these two carbohydrates, particularly in dishes prepared by chef John Beddard and his sous chef Michael Keller.
How can white flour be transformed into light, tasty pillows? Make spaetzle. But please, don’t call them “spatZEL.” The correct Schwabische version is “spate-zlee.” These tiny little dumplings are a popular alpine rustic side dish oft seen in autumn alongside “chasse” (game). In addition to serving it as a side, Beddard dresses up spaetzle as an appetizer. Either way, Swiss Chalet’s are well worth the carbs and calories.
Keller and I made spaetzle together. It’s a simple dish: 4 cups of flour, 10 eggs – I finally learned to crack eggs with one hand – and ground nutmeg. Salt is added just before using the dough; otherwise, the dough breaks. Now comes the fun. Over a large saucepan of boiling water, drop the dough onto a spaetzle lid – a flat, round metal disc with large perforations – and push it through with a scraper. It seemed easy enough, but it took some practice for me to stop sacrificing dough to the kitchen gods. When the dumplings come to a boil and float to the top, remove and douse in ice water.
Now comes the deadly – but oh-so delicious – sins! Over medium heat in a saute pan, add a bit of clarified butter and then drained spaetzle. Top with a small handful of fondue mixture and a bit of heavy cream. Cook, stirring, until the cheese is melted and the spaetzle heated through. Plate, and garnish with whatever you fancy. For me, it’s just more butter. But Keller topped ours with diced tomatoes, finely chopped parsley and thin, fried onions he had made – everything from scratch at Swiss Chalet!
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My Valais culinary memories of potato dishes are rosti and raclette potatoes American’s call “fingerlings.” Raclette potatoes are sidekicks to the cheese for which they are named. They are kept warm in covered and lined wicker baskets and are eaten “naked” with cornichons and pickled onions alongside a lovely puddle of melted raclette. But boiled, drained and heated in a saute pan with butter, chopped parsley and kosher salt, these simple tubers turn into a delicious, uncomplicated side that Beddard pairs with his perfectly puffed schnitzel.
Next to potatoes, patience is one of the most important ingredients to make a truly authentic – crispy on the outside, moist and yummy on the inside – rosti. There are as many rosti recipes as there are grandmas in the Alps. Beddard’s recipe follows simple, traditional lines. The alchemy that results in a perfect rosti begins with peeled, shredded and parboiled Yukon potatoes.
To make a 6- to 8-inch-wide “cake” of Beddard’s rosti, shred about two peeled parboiled Yukon potatoes into a bowl using the large holes of a cheese grater. Season liberally with salt and pepper and a robust pinch of fresh-ground nutmeg. Add a little white flour. With one hand, gently mix the ingredients until incorporated. Avoid the urge to pack down the mixture. You need the ingredients to be loose to allow the steam to flow through during cooking.
In a nonstick 8-inch saute pan, make a “haystack” of the potato mixture. I estimate about three inches high in the middle. Place on medium heat, and add four small cubes of cold butter between the “haystack” and edge of pan. Position each cube as though it’s the corner of a square, representing a corner of Switzerland, or so I’m told. I’m more inclined to believe each represents one of the four official Swiss languages – German, French, Italian and the ancient, but now endangered, language of Roman times, Romansh. Whatever the symbolism, it’s the butter that penetrates the potatoes, imparting a rich flavor and producing a crispy crust.
Now, it’s time for the key ingredient: patience. This is not your basic short-order, hashed-brown potatoes. As Keller gently worked the potatoes away from the pan’s edge, he told me his secret to a good rosti: “Low and slow and a lot of loving.” Once the bottom is nice and golden, gently push down the haystack a little. Flip it, and continue cooking on the other side until it, too, is golden. Personally, I like it nearly burned. Rosti is great on its own, alongside Beddard’s Zurcher Geschnetzles or, my favorite ski lunch in Crans-Montana, topped with a slice of Gruyere and a fried egg: warmth, energy and gastronomic naughtiness all wrapped up in one dish!
Here’s my two cents on rosti at Swiss Chalet. It’s one of their most popular dishes and for a reason – it’s delicious and made to order. When the house is full, there’s a lot of “rosti love” going on. So please be patient. Each rosti takes about 15 minutes, and this is a process that cannot be hurried. Well, it can be, but the quality would not be up to Swiss Chalet standards.
While we were busy cooking up these classic, rustic Swiss dishes, Garde Manger Stefano Puls, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, was busy prepping raclette cheese and assembling Matterhorn raclette plates and Baurenteller, a plate of cold meats including air-dried beef – Buendnerfleisch in German, viande sechee in French – and wild-boar sausage, cheese plus garnishes. Cheese and dried meats sustain Swiss paysans as they tend their cows in alpages during long summer days. Of course, a glass of crisp, young Fendant from Valais is always a great choice to wash it down. At Swiss Chalet, Sonnenalp sommelier Jarrett Quint can make some excellent recommendations from the hotel’s wine list of more than 1,000 wines.
The long, lazy summer evenings in Vail are a great time to kick back and relax on the Swiss Chalet deck. Half-priced appetizers and $20 bottles of Quint’s “wines of the week” are available daily from 5 until 6:30 p.m. – a great start to a Bravo evening! Or if apres-concert dining is more your style, drop in for a hearty dinner from the great choices on Beddard’s menu.
As I mentioned last week, I am a Swiss food ubersnob. I eschew fake European motifs and cuisine. But you won’t find either at Swiss Chalet. Switzerland was my home through most of my adult life, and I have fond memories that are burned in my mind and heart. I think I’ve finally found a little niche I can visit to take the edge off missing alpine life.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. Visit http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.