03 October 2007

Pseudo-Memories of France

Ah, comfort food. I love a dish that's warm, hearty, savory, and brings back fond memories of my childhood in provincial France playing marbles, cycling, and thumbing my nose at those dimwit American tourists.

By France I am actually referring to quaint little San Lorenzo, California and quaint, ridiculously suburbanized Castro Valley, California (East Bay!) where I never so much as
sniffed a French bistro. Probably a good thing as San Lorenzo and Castro Valley are not exactly culinary havens. I did trek to Paris (among other European stops) after graduating college, though. Here's a tip if you're backpacking through Europe on the cheap: Don't go to the Moulin Rouge. I know, I know... I, too, loved Baz Luhrmann's filmic ode to bohemian love, and I, too, have a silly man-crush on Ewan McGregor. Just keep in mind that Montmartre is on the outskirts of Paris, so when you finally get to the Moulin Rouge and realize it costs at least $200 for dinner and the show, you'll smack yourself in the head, decide to pass, and look around and see that there's merde to do in the immediate vicinity. My buddy and I visited the various souvenir shops and settled in at a restaurant across the street that, judging by the English menu, catered to tourists. It was here I had my first croque monsieur, the egg-less sibling of the croque madame. I've tried to replicate it in the past without making bechamel sauce, one of those French "mother" sauces that scare the bejeezus out of a novice cook like me, and boy is that a mistake. Without bechamel sauce, the croque monsieur/madame is just a dry sandwich. So, grab your whisk, it's sauce making time. Your wrist will hurt, but you'll feel like a chef afterwards.

Before you start the sauce, though, start your broiler and place your oven rack right up under it. Huzzah for pretty blue flames!

I used a bechamel recipe from Williams-Sonoma. You're basically going to make a roux (French word alert! It's the thickening agent behind every sauce and gravy made from butter and flour. And it's pronounced "rue.") and then whisk in milk and cheese. The recipe calls for gruyere cheese, which is some salty good stuff. If you're wondering if you have to continuously whisk the entire time... yes, absolutely. Do NOT stop whisking! I stopped for ten seconds to peruse the recipe and the sauce burned slightly. Since I'm a lazy mofo, I pushed on with the lightly toasted bechamel. It's still good, it's still good.

If you're saying to yourself, "Butter! Milk! Cheese! How healthy is this?!" The answer to your question is: You clearly don't love food. Go eat a carrot.

After making the bechamel sauce, the hard work is done. All that's left is to do the math, as we used to say in Calculus (not bragging, I barely
passed). Assemble your dish.

Don't buy sliced bread for this. You're not eating it with your hands, so get a nice, fresh bread that'll sop up the sauce but still hold together. In other words, slice it thick. I bought some organic deal from Whole Foods, not because it was organic so much as it was round. Thems round loafs is fancy! It smelled good and was slightly soft. It ended up being some kind of sourdough, which wasn't in the recipe but works splendidly.

I used a croque madame recipe from, yes, Williams-Sonoma, but it called for black forest ham, which I didn't have. I did have a bunch of leftover rotisserie chicken from Costco... perfecto! (Perfecto is not a French word.) Toast the bread first, then pile on chunks of chicken and ladle the bechamel over the whole thing. Top with more grated cheese. Throw it back in the broiler until the cheese begins to melt and brown. At this point, you've pretty much got a croque monsieur that's waiting to be madame-ed. Get a pan with oil going and fry an egg.
You probably think you can fry an egg. I used to think so, too. But I never did it the same way twice. Then I realized that once the egg is down in the pan and frying... leave it the hell alone. Let it cook. Don't flip it yet. Just don't do it. Leave it be until the whites are all, you know, actually white. Not partially white. White. If you want over-easy, flip it once. It's not a steak, there's no reason to flip and flip and flip. Cook it through on one side, flip once, cook it to your desired doneness on the other. Camille doesn't like runny yolks, so I let hers go a little longer before flipping to make sure the bottom of the yolk is cooked.

Okay, so the broiler has probably done it's business by now. Take out the sandwich, plate it, top it with an egg. That's it. The recipe calls for topping each piece with another slice of bread to make a sandwich, but the tourist trap eatery across from the Moulin Rouge made it open-faced, and since I'm sentimental, I did the same.
The bechamel turns what is otherwise a mundane, dry meat and cheese combination into a rich, creamy, hearty, comforting dish. Savory chicken, tangy bread, cheese... that stuff hits the spot. Even better, as hearty as it is, it doesn't weigh you down. It brings back fond memories of France that I don't really have (damn you, Moulin Rouge! Damn you to hell!). Mmmmm, sentimental sandwich.

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