Fondue me, Baby!

How I found dinner party success with
hot oil, duct tape, and sharp objects

Now is the time when heavy yellow peaches with coral blush skins give way to crisp tart apples and pears. Yes, it’s fall, and the time for summer barbecue has passed as well. But what if I told you there’s another way to entertain a crowd that’s just as easy and relaxed as a barbecue, and twice as much fun? I give you the fondue party! It’s time to resurrect that ‘70s thing. All the food is prepped in advance, so there’s very little to do once guests arrive. And it’s the perfect way to entertain if you are a passive aggressive host. What could be better than inviting people for dinner and making them cook it themselves?

Hot oil treatment

The idea came from friends Flyboy Rich and Lovely Lisa, who invited us for a fondue party at their cool hang-out pad at a local airfield. I had visions of cheese and bread and not much of a meal, though I remember really liking it as a kid. That’s the traditional Swiss fondue, made with gruyere and emmentaler cheese, some kirsch, white wine and maybe a little garlic and a hint of nutmeg for depth of flavor. This however, was not what we found when PIP (Palate In Progress) and I arrived. Rich and Lisa did fondue with hot oil and various batter dipped meats and vegetables, and the result was one of the best dinner parties I’ve ever been to.

For PIP’s birthday, I decided to recreate Rich and Lisa’s party with their expert guidance, and add on the traditional cheese to start with, and a chocolate fondue for dessert. Joining us were Mr. and Mrs. Jinx, who agreed that they couldn’t remember the last time they’d fondued.

We started with a cheese fondue with crusty chunks of bread I already had prepared. Dorothy Lane Market has a pre-shredded fondue blend in a bag available in the cheese case, and it was perfect. I’m not usually a fan of things prepackaged, but the only ingredients were the two traditional cheeses and a little cornstarch, plus directions to simply add wine. It couldn’t have been easier or more delicious!

I also had the chocolate fondue melted in a pan on the stove ready to transfer to a fondue pot when time came for dessert. I had two pots to make three kinds of fondue, so using the stove to prepare the chocolate in advance made sense. Cheese fondue and chocolate fondue don’t require you to cook anything; it’s the other kind that requires a little explanation. So here’s your primer on fon-do’s and fon-don’ts:

Fondue 101

Your job as host is to be sure all guests practice safe fondue. And an explanation outlining all the rules is the best way to ensure that fun is had by all, and there are no accidents or poorly cooked food.

The secret to success in cooking with hot oil is maintaining the heat. To this end, you’ll need two fondue pots at least, even if there are only four people. And forget the metal forks that come with a fondue set. They’re fine for the cheese or dessert fondues, but for hot oil, bamboo is your best friend. Metal skewers conduct heat and lower the oil temperature. And, with bamboo, you can color code with markers each individual guest’s skewers.

Crowd control

Each guest gets only two skewers, and should not attempt to cook more than one piece of food at a time on each. If the drinks are flowing, this rule prevents aggressive or sloppy dunking. Too many skewers and too many chunks of food will lower the oil temperature and result in greasy, soggy, underdone fondue—a definite fon-don’t. If you’ve got a candy thermometer, the temperature should read 380 degrees. (If not, pro tip from Mr. Jinx: dip a bamboo skewer in the oil and if bubbles form around it, you are good to go.) Additionally an awareness of raw and cooked food is vital for the health and safety of all, so color coded plates (red for raw food, blue for cooked for example) is the way to go. And no double dipping in the dipping sauces should go without saying.

Roll tape

Duct tape is ESSENTIAL. All cords should be taped to the table, down the table legs and across the floor. Remember we’re talking scalding hot oil here people, and nothing dampens high spirits like third degree burns and a trip to the ER.

Size matters

When prepping vegetables, even chunks are important. We used onions, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant and Portobello mushrooms. Meats should be in one-inch cubes. Chicken, shrimp and steak all work beautifully, but do yourself a favor and splurge on filet for the beef, or something you are sure is very tender. Since it cooks quickly, lesser cuts of beef will be tough. Approximate cooking times for meat are as follows: shrimp—1 minute, steak—1 minute, chicken—3 minutes. If you happen to cut open a piece of chicken that’s still too raw on your cooked food plate, it’s a good idea to replace it with a fresh one. Again, nothing like a little E coli to ruin the memory of a fun time.

Batter up

Mix up a large batch of tempura batter and keep it thin. You can buy a commercially available one, or you can make your own easily, which is what I did. A mix of flour, baking soda, cornstarch and fizzy club soda makes a nice airy coating and doesn’t contain excessive sodium, additives or preservatives. Not over-mixing and leaving a few small lumps in the batter is the key. Season with salt and pepper if you want (we didn’t because our dipping sauce was salty enough), and dip away. (Pro Tip: Have lots of of paper towels on hand to line plates to absorb excess oil and to wipe up any messes.)

Take a dip

Teriyaki style dipping sauces are an ideal complement to these flash fried chunks of fondue goodness. I made one with ginger, scallions, ponzu sauce and lime juice, and this citrusy mix was the clear favorite. If you don’t have the ingredients on hand, a commercial teriyaki works fine. Remember no double dipping if you are using a communal bowl. Since I am all about the sauce and feel the need to dip more than once, I gave each guest their own individual bowls.

And how did our guests react? Mr. Jinx really summed up the experience. “Eating like this really makes you concentrate on each bite. It’s impossible to gobble your food.” We agreed that there was something zen-like about the in-the-moment mindfulness cooking and eating individual bites imposes. Not to mention the fun. “Truly a blast!” was how Mrs. Jinx termed the evening.

So when was the last time you had a fondue party? Clearly, it’s time! You’ve got all the info you need to bring back the ‘70s. You don’t necessarily have to grab your groovy bell-bottoms and platform shoes, but you just might want to. Now go forth and fondue!

Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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