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Archive for February, 2011

Croque monsieur

Celebrating Spring

Spring is in the air, Ah… Choo! Green sprouts and buds are appearing everywhere. Birds are chirping, the sun is out. Yahoo! I feel like celebrating this greening, this rebirth by eating one of mother earth’s gifts. Ta Da! The asparagus!

The asparagus is such an elegant vegetable. Proud, erect, regal in its bearing, I always feel a sense of honor eating it. Its flavor is delicate but distinctively sweet and lightly grassy. It can be steamed, roasted, grilled, stir-fried or baked. I love to roast them for a very short time in a hot oven with a light drizzle of soy sauce, lemon juice, sesame oil and a sprinkle of sesame seed. Sometimes I steam them until they are just al-dente and serve them with plain old mayonnaise for dipping. Other times I serve them as a light and elegant appetizer for a special meal. I change the flavor of the dipping or hollandaise sauce to fit the theme of what I’m serving.

Green and grand atop a Croque Monsieur, it makes an impressive brunch entree. A croque monsieur is basically a French style grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Over the years many cooks have fancied up this sandwich by dipping it in an egg milk batter and frying it. Others have incorporated béchamel sauce in it. My favorite version is from Tartine, in San Francisco. They serve it open faced with a draping of rich béchamel sauce and asparagus. Using their house baked bread; it is simply sublime in its richness. Here’s my version of Tartine’s croque monsieur.

Croque Monsieur
Serves: 4 (two slices each)

8 slices of sourdough bread or levain bread sliced ½ inch thick
¼ cup olive oil
16- medium sized asparagus
8 –pieces of thinly sliced cooked ham
3 cups grated Gruyere cheese

Cheese Béchamel sauce*
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup diced onions
3-Tablespoons chopped parsley
1 –teaspoon lemon thyme
1 –bay leaf
3 ½- Tablespoons butter
3 ½- Tablespoons flour
1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
3- Tablespoons Dijon mustard
¼- teaspoon white pepper
½- teaspoon salt
½- teaspoon grated nutmeg

Add onion, parsley, thyme and bay leaf to milk. At medium heat, bring milk almost to a boil, turn off fire and let herbs steep in milk for 15 minutes. In a separate pot, make a roux by melting butter and adding flour together over medium heat. Whisk the flour and butter together and let it bubble gently for 2 minutes. Drain onion mixture from milk. Add the drained milk to this roux and whisk until smooth. Bring to boil, then turn down to low heat and cook for another 10 minutes, whisking occasionally to keep sauce smooth. Add 1 cup grated Gruyere, salt, pepper, nutmeg and mustard. Whisk until combined and smooth. Set aside. Blanch or nuke asparagus for 1 minute and set aside.
Brush bread on both sides with olive oil and toast in a 450-degree oven till one side is crisp. This should take approximately 5-10 minutes. Turn bread over and spread 1 Tablespoon of béchamel sauce over the surface. Lay a slice of ham, then 2 asparagus spears across the length of the bread. Spread 1 ½ Tablespoons of béchamel sauce over asparagus and ham and sprinkle approximately 2-3 Tablespoons of grated Gruyere over ham and asparagus. Bake in oven till melted and brown. This takes approximately 10-15 minutes. Enjoy !

I have served this for an elegant brunch, dinner as well as appetizer when cut into fourths.

*Béchamel sauce recipe adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison.

Here’s an additional topping for non-meat eaters or mushroom lovers.

Wild mushroom topping

1/4 cup butter
2 Tablespoon olive oil
1/3 lb. shitake mushrooms sliced 1/2″ thick
1/3 lb. cremini mushrooms sliced 1/2″thick
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced lemon thyme- fresh or dried
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 Tablespoons sherry
3 Tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Melt butter with olive oil. Saute over medium high heat, the mushrooms until they start to give up their liquids. Add garlic, thyme, salt and pepper and continue to saute until they is almost no liquid in pan. Add sherry and saute over high heat for 3 minutes.
Add parsley and toss over medium heat for 2 minutes.

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