Saturday, July 31, 2010

Comfort Food

Today I'm writing about something I was sure I'd blogged about before. But I checked just to make sure, and I haven't. So it's about time I give a shout out to one of the most sublime dishes of all time, the croque monsieur. This little baby comes to us from France, and is basically an amped-up version of a ham and cheese sandwich. The big difference is that everything is slathered in cream sauce and then thrown under the broiler.

I first heard about croque monsieur in high school French class, which is most likely where you've heard of it if you ever took high school French. I seem to remember it being pretty ubiquitous; "Qu'est-ce que tu veux manger?" "Je voudrais un croque monsieur." That sort of thing. Well, high school passed, and so did my study of French, but I was reunited with the sandwich on the pages of Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris. I decided to give it a shot, and let me tell you, it was amour at first bite. I began making croque monsieur all the time. I think my mom thought I was a little crazy. But I was hooked. Croque monsieur (with a glass of red wine) has become my ultimate comfort food.

Maybe that statement is a little shocking. For one, isn't comfort food supposed to be hearty things like meatloaf and pot roast that are rich and warm and make us feel good in the winter? Perhaps. And isn't comfort food those meals we grew up with, the ones our moms poured so much love and care into, and to this day remind us of childhood? Absolutely. But for me, I choose a croque monsieur, and I choose it for two reasons. (1) It's quick. The brilliance of the croque is that it takes very simple ingredients and makes them into something that doesn't taste simple. Making a cream sauce may seem like a lot of work for a sandwich, but you can make one in less than five minutes. When I come home after a long day and need something to cheer me up, I know that I can have bliss, quick. (2) It just. tastes. good. In yesterday's post, I talked about taste, and how we can eat food and not even be aware of what we're tasting. That never happens to me with my little monsieur. It tastes delicious to me every time.

I think it's the mustard. Funny, because growing up, I never liked mustard. In fact, I didn't like many condiments. I've come to realize it's mostly a texture thing--globs of those soft, almost gelatinous mixtures just didn't appeal to me. But then I made croque monsieur. And I just spread the thinnest layer of mustard on just one slice of my bread. It was a revelation. The gooey texture of the mustard is not there at all, but the flavor certainly is. And it's a sharper flavor than everything else. It cuts through the creaminess of the sauce, the nuttiness of the cheese, and the silkiness of the ham. And the result is beautiful.

So, I'm thinking right now you might be wanting to make a croque monsieur of your own. Do it. Here's how:

Throw a couple slices of good white bread (Pittsburgh people--I use Mancini's, but anything Italian-style will do) in the toaster to lightly toast. Basically, you just want to crisp it up.

While the bread is toasting, make your Bechamel (the cream sauce). Here's how to do it:
  • Melt 1 T of butter in a saucepan over medium low heat.
  • When the butter is melted, add 1 T of flour and stir together, making a kind of paste (this is called a roux, and it's what thickens the sauce).
  • In a slow stream, pour in about 1 cup of milk (maybe less), quickly stirring the whole time, to avoid lumps.
  • Let come to just under a boil, and cook for a few minutes so it thickens a bit.
  • Take off the heat and add a combination of grated parmesan and gruyere (or swiss) cheese, about 1/3-1/2 cup.
  • Sprinkle in a pinch of salt, nutmeg, and fresh ground pepper. Stir.
That's it!

Now assemble the sandwich. Take the bread, and on the bottom slice, spread a thin layer of mustard. The French would probably use Dijon, but I like something with a little spice. Use what you like.

Put a couple slices of ham on top.

Spread a thin layer of Bechemel on the top slice of bread, and put the sandwich together.

Now slather the whole thing with Bechemel. Make sure all the bread is covered in sauce. Any parts that aren't may burn when you broil.

Sprinkle with grated cheese (or sometimes I just a slice of swiss from the deli counter).

Put on a pan and put under the broiler until the cheese is bubbly and golden.

Eat with a knife and fork. And a glass of red.

Bon Appetit!

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