For my entire childhood, I had a week's notice of my dinner fare. Every Saturday morning, my mother plunked a pile of cookbooks and her overstuffed recipe box on the dining room table and mapped out a week of dinner menus before heading to the local co-op. It helped her manage her budget, shopping and sanity, but left her open to scrutiny.
"Welsh rabbit? What's that?" I quizzed her, when, at about age 6, the odd entree item was written on her menu and posted on the kitchen corkboard. Visions of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, braised or boiled, came to mind.
"Not Rabbit, rare-bit, and Welsh as in 'from Wales,' dear."
"Whales?" I squeaked. The bunnies turned to blubber and baleen.
"Wales, the country," she sighed, eyeing my blank expression and returning it with one of her exasperated "heavens, what are they not teaching you in school" looks.
"It's cheese, it's toast, you'll like it," she assured.
And I did. Thick slabs of sturdy bread, crisply toasted before being napped in a melted blanket of sharp Cheddar cheese. Welsh rarebit is the English pub equivalent of fondue and was my busy mother's fast food ally.
The list of ingredients, including cheese and butter, might make pious nutritionists recoil. But take another look at the measurements -- small. Room can be made in a balanced diet for an occasional smattering of such richness. And balance, as the great American food writer MFK Fisher wrote more than a half century ago, need not be a requirement for each meal. Such a strategy inevitably leads to dinner dissatisfaction, if not outright despair. A "balanced" diet can also be achieved by aiming for week-long balance.
If you view vegetables as punishment (stripped, steamed, blanched --bleah) when partnered with austere entrees, try them alongside Welsh rarebit. The contrast is enlivening. Such was the case when Welsh rarebit appeared on my mother's menu. My siblings and I were bamboozled into eating everything from brussels sprouts to beets if melted cheese took center stage.
Like all elementary dishes, the level of Welsh rarebit's deliciousness varies directly with the quality of ingredients. It is still excellent on the cheap, but steer clear of wimpy white bread -- it is too feeble to sustain the weight of the cheese. Any thick, crusty bread, or the remnants of a baguette, will work. Sharp cheddar cheese, enriched with beer, mustard, and an egg yolk, is melted into a robust sauce, spooned atop the toasted bread, then broiled until browned and bubbly, making it worthy of fork and knife.
Yesterday I discovered that Welsh rarebit is an ideal meal at the end of a journey home. When making our return trek, Kevin and I tend to dispatch meals as quickly as possible, and to distract ourselves from the actual business of eating. It makes for efficiency, but also disgruntlement. By the time we arrived, we made a grumpy lot.
But unpacking our amorphous bundles of luggage, and chasing Nick about the yard for several hours, renewed our spirits, and our appetites. By 6:30 we were both famished, but too exhausted for anything elaborate. Welsh rarebit sprang to memory. And because we had eaten more meat in four days then we typically eat in two weeks, I didn't even need to convince Kevin of the virtues of a vegetarian entree.
For a twist, I took the cherry tomatoes Kevin picked up at the store and roasted them instead of plunking them, raw, into the spinach salad. This transformed their rock-hard exteriors into melt-in-your mouth morsels. I kept them attached to their stems, and balanced them atop the bubbling slices. With salad and a pour of chilled wine, it was the home cooking we had both been craving.
Welsh Rarebit with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
Leaving the cherry tomatoes on the vines makes a pretty presentation, and also makes it simple to transport them from roasting pan to toasted bread. Just snip the vines so you have six tomatoes per vine. I’ve been able to find cherry tomatoes on the vine in most every supermarket, typically sold in red net bags (as opposed to cherry tomatoes in baskets). The quick roast caramelizes the natural sugars, making off-season tomatoes every bit as delectable as their summertime siblings.
Make a fresh spinach salad to accompany the rarebit; that's all you need for dinner.
24 cherry or grape tomatoes
nonstick cooking spray
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/3 cup beer
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
8 ounces strong cheddar cheese, grated
1 large egg yolk
4 large, thick slices sturdy bread, lightly toasted
2 tablespoons snipped chives
Preheat the oven to 400F.
Place tomatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet; lightly mist with cooking spray and season with sea salt and pepper. Roast in oven for 15 minutes until they just begin to burst their skins. Loosely cover with foil to keep warm.
Switch oven to broiler setting. Combine the canola oil and the butter in a saucepan, then add flour and cook over low heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Add beer, mustard and cheese, and stir until creamy (do not boil). Remove from heat, add egg yolk and stir until blended. Evenly spread the toasted bread with cheese mixture, and place under the broiler until hot and bubbling (about 30-60 seconds). Top with the broiled tomatoes and garnish with some chives. Makes 4 main-dish servings.
Nutrition per Serving (1 piece Welsh rarebit with tomatoes):
Calories 339; Fat 19.2g (sat 8.0g, mono 7.8g, poly 2.2g); Protein 18.3g; Cholesterol 85.9mg; Carbohydrate 22.6g; Sodium 598.5mg.
(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1)
History Notes for Welsh Rarebit
Welsh rabbit, Welsh rarebit (nn.)
"Welsh rabbit and Welsh rarebit are both Standard English names for a dish of melted cheese and beer served on toast or crackers, presumably so-called as an insult to the impoverished or uncivilized Welsh, who were said to eat it instead of the rabbit meat they lacked; hence Welsh rabbit is almost certainly an ethnic slur. Welsh rarebit is a folk etymology apparently either contrived to avoid offending the Welsh or caused by a misunderstanding of the intended noun, since perhaps some couldn’t see a connection between cheese and rabbits." --The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Copyright © 1993 Columbia University Press