France: Evoking Travel Memories with Food
Traveling turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.
When we return home from our travels, food can transport us back to that special time and place. Souvenirs and pictures do this too, but food affects our bodies in addition to our minds. Just one taste can carry us to another country especially France. My strongest memories are stirred not by a photograph but by food.
I remember the delicious fika (little lunch) I had in Sweden over midsummer. The cake with fresh berries served with coffee surprised me with how much my Minnesota culture had in common with the Swedish culture. This was something my grandmother would have served. I was at home and not at home with just one bite.
I remember the surprising comfort I found in the salade lyonnaise I had in Lyon, France.
The soft poached egg oozed over the lightly dressed greens. After spending the day trudging up and down the hills of Lyon with my luggage, I needed some comfort. I didn’t expect it to come from a simple salad. Travel is fun like that. Just around the corner is another unexpected experience.
I remember seeing the croque monsieur on every menu in Paris. My husband gobbled them up whenever he could. I, on the other hand, was greatly disappointed that there wasn’t a vegetarian version of the famous sandwich.
Traditionally, a croque monsieur consists of two pieces of toasted bread with ham and gruyere cheese between them. The sandwich is topped with a decadent white cream sauce (a.k.a. béchamel) and more gruyere. The whole thing is popped under the broiler until crispy (croque is French for crispy).
I was frustrated about the inclusion of ham, so I set out to make my own version. Since vegetarian food is not about just replacing meat with a fake meat product (if I liked eating meat, I’d eat the real thing…), I decided to make a vegetarian version that was inspired by the traditional croque monsieur but can stand on its own. I craved a croque monsieur that would make me drool and would transport me back to a Parisian cafe.
The caramelized onions complement the nutty gruyere cheese perfectly while the tomato and spinach round out the flavor. This is not a sandwich for every day. This is a sandwich for special occasions – for those times when you dream of visiting Paris from your own living room.
Jill’s Croque Monsieur
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 4 slices bread
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
- 2/3 cup milk
- salt and pepper to taste
- 4 teaspoons dijon mustard
- 1 tomato
- 1/2 cup spinach, chopped
- 2 ounces gruyere cheese, shredded
Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and olive oil. Stir in salt and cover. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 40-60 minutes or until the onion is super soft. If needed, add a tablespoon of water to keep the onion moist. When soft, uncover and increase the heat to medium. Cook until golden brown, stirring frequently, for 20-30 minutes. Set aside. This can be made up to a week in advance.
Turn the broiler to high. Place the bread on a baking sheet and toast under the broiler until light brown. Flip and toast again. Watch carefully to prevent burning. It doesn’t have to be deeply toasted; we are just looking for a little crunch.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour. Stir while cooking for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-low. Whisk in about a tablespoon of milk. Once evenly incorporated, whisk in another tablespoon of milk. Continue to whisk in milk very slowly to prevent lumps. After adding all the milk, turn the heat to medium, add salt and pepper to taste, and let cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly. The sauce should be bubbly and gradually thickening. Once it is as thick as gravy, remove from heat.
Spread mustard on each slice of bread. On one slide, spread half the caramelized onions. Add half the spinach and two slices of tomatoes. Top with a fourth of the cheese. Place another slice of bread, mustard side down on top of the cheese. Place on a baking sheet. Repeat with the second sandwich. Spread half the sauce on the top of each sandwich. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on the top of the sauce.
Cook the sandwiches under the broiler for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Let cool before eating.