I love fresh vegetables. Raw ones especially. One of my favorite suppers is a spin on Judith Jones’ fennel salad: shaved raw fennel (I use a mandoline slicer to get the pieces see-through thin), shaved apple, and shaved radishes topped with little curls of Parmesan and toasted walnuts, dressed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette. It’s crunchy and anise-y and light and a little sweet with nice satisfying chews of warm walnut and salty hits of Parm. I also make a raw salad with shaved beets, fennel, radish and carrot, served over arugula, also with Parm, though no walnuts and a lemony vinaigrette instead of a Balsamic one.
Come mid summer almost every meal I eat centers on the tomato. Half the time I just slice a sweet one from the farmer’s market, dribble olive oil and a dash of Balsamic on top, scatter on some s&p and basil leaves and dig in. Sometimes I’ll rip some sourdough bread into chunks, season with olive oil and salt, toast til brown, and throw into the tomato salad, letting the crisp toasty bread soak up the tomato juices. And don’t get me started on gazpacho, which I’m a huge sucker for, especially yellow tomato gazpacho, which is sweet and tart and so gorgeous in the bowl.
My point is this: I am not a finicky child-like eater who turns her nose up at healthy things, spinach and such. In fact, I devour spinach by the bagful, whether raw in a salad or sauteed with garlic and olive oil for a side dish.
But I don’t want to write about healthy delicious food today. I want to write about my comfort food du jour, a white bread, white sauce, ham and cheese concoction that ze French like to call a Croque Monsieur. (Add an egg on top and the sandwich becomes a lady, a Croque Madame).
I’ve been making a boatload of Croque Monsieur lately. A more apt description might be a belly load, because these things are far from low cal. The secret to a great Croque Monsieur is bechamel, which is just a white sauce made of cooked flour, butter, hot milk and a little seasoning. The bechamel is the Cyrano de Bergerac of the sandwich. Most eaters wouldn’t even know it’s there, but boy does it make the cheese look and behave a whole lot better.
You start with the best bread you can find. I think sourdough works particularly well. Cut a thick slice, remembering that this is an open faced sandwich, so you don’t have to worry about getting your mouth around two huge slices of bread. Lightly mustard the sourdough. (Yes, it’s okay to use mustard as a verb!) I’ve been using Miele’s spicy Dijon, which adds a nice kick. Then layer on a couple of slices of ham. (I just use thin sliced stuff from the deli counter at the grocery store.) Now comes the secret weapon: Spread about a tablespoon of bechamel onto the ham, and give it a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. I usually add some chopped parsley at this point too, just because the greenness of the parsley gives the illusion that there is something healthy about all of this. Traditionally you should now top your cream sauce with Gruyere, though I use whatever cheese I have on hand. Today it was a slice of Monterey Jack with spicy peppers, and grated Parmesan. Once you cover the top of your sandwich with cheese you can scoop a little more white sauce on top of that, then cover once more with cheese. But zut alors, that is gilding the lily, and not at all necessary! Slide the sandwich under the broiler for about 10 minutes until the white sauce is bubbling and the cheese has melted and darkened and your bread and meat are warmed all of the way through. Serve with cornichons. I ate a small cup of blueberries with my sandwich, too, because blueberries are a SuperFood and I thought they might counterbalance some of the wrongness of the Croque.
Here is the thing: You don’t eat a Croque Monsieur for lunch when everything is going just swimmingly, when you are at the top of your game and you KNOW you’ll write 5000 words that day, and they’ll be good words, inspired words that will find their way into the novel that you are writing and you’re just SO ON FIRE WITH IT THAT YOU’VE GOT TO GET BACK TO IT RIGHT NOW!! You eat a Croque Monsieur when you’ve stared at your computer for 2 hours, tinkered with a paragraph, and are now trying to stop yourself from falling asleep at your desk. You eat a Croque Monsieur when your accountant calls to tell you that you’re going to owe a little more in taxes than you previously thought. You eat a Croque Monsieur when you feel a sort of generalized sadness about things, though you know the sadness is unwarranted. You know if you were to make a list of all you are grateful for that list would be long. But you don’t feel like making that list. You feel melancholy. Which means you feel French. Which means you should eat a Croque Monsieur.
You shut down your computer, turn on the broiler, put the sandwich together. Ten minutes later and you are hunkered over the plate. With each bite you try to figure out why you like it so much. You wonder if it was a nursery food for French children, the way grilled cheese was for you. You think there’s something primal about warm bread and gooey, melted things. You think you are eating too quickly. You think you had better add an extra fifteen minutes to your workout that night, but then you think, oh screw it. Food shouldn’t always be an intake/outtake calculation. Sometimes its purpose is simply that it is delicious and warm.