I can still remember the sublime experience of eating a Croque Monsieur for the first time. A friend and I were on holiday traveling through Europe while studying abroad in England. We took the Chunnel from London to Paris, where we made romantic plans to meet some other friends at the top of the Eiffel Tower. I knew nothing about serious traveling, let alone traveling with a large backpack the size of another human strapped to your back. In my 20-year old naiveté, I had no hesitations about traveling through 6 countries in a span of 3 weeks—none of which were English-speaking countries. I bought my Berkeley Guide Europe ’97 (which still sits proudly on my bookshelf), tightened my rose-colored glasses, and away we went.
I think back on my time traveling around Europe from time and time, and am astounded at how casually I approached everything. My friend and I arrived in Paris and thought it made the most sense to try and find lodging for the night. I can’t imagine traveling anywhere in today’s world without first researching prices, neighborhoods, etc., and then BOOKING A PLACE TO STAY. We nonchalantly began calling hostels listed in our guide from the Paris train station, and eventually found one within our price range. After a decent night’s sleep (with my passport tied around my neck and tucked into my pajamas), we headed out to explore the City of Lights.
Of course, I was a poor student back then and didn’t really care that I had very little money to spend while traveling. The important thing was the opportunity to be able to travel to these incredible countries, and not so much what we would be able to afford and not afford to do once we arrived. My friend and I agreed that since we were on a limited budget, we would stick to eating fruit, baguettes and jam for the majority of our meals—all of which were extremely cheap at any market—and then treat ourselves to one meal per city (roughly every 2-3 days). Again, for my 20-year-old self, this did not feel like a huge sacrifice. And it had a huge upside! Every REAL meal we ate tasted like manna from heaven. Which brings me to my meal in Paris. We had been walking around all day, seeing the sights and taking in the sounds while a light mist engulfed the city. By dinnertime, we were wet, tired and hungry. We had no idea where to go for a reasonably priced dinner in Paris. We eventually stumbled upon a brasserie that looked warm, inviting, and best of all, cheap. I ordered a Croque Monsieur, not because I knew what it was, but because I remember the description mentioning ham and cheese, which sounded familiar to my Midwestern palate. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this dish, it is essentially a ham and cheese (usually Emmental or Gruyère) sandwich on white bread. However, what makes this dish stand out is the béchamel sauce that is added to the sandwich, as well as the extra cheese that is sprinkled on top. The entire sandwich is then broiled for a minute or two to create a beautifully golden, crunchy crust. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
I saw this recipe for Roasted Tomato Croques in a recent issue of Food & Wine and immediately tore it out to add to my recipe file. I’m going to go ahead and call it a summer version of the original, and I really like the fact that it’s an open-face sandwich. I think open-face sandwiches have virtue, if only because they better highlight the sandwich ingredients instead of hiding them between two pieces of bread. The original recipe calls for straining the béchamel sauce, but I love onions, thyme, and rosemary, so I decided to leave them in for added flavor. It also called for pickled peppers, which I did not have on hand (I’m no Peter Piper…sorry—had to), so I simply added a few splashes of balsamic vinegar to each slice of bread before roasting and it did the trick. I took a bite of these beauties fresh out of the oven and was immediately transported back to that Paris brasserie. Cue the Edith Piaf….
Roasted Tomato Croques
Adapted from Food & Wine
Yield: 15 open-face sandwiches
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 small thyme sprigs, plus 1 Tbsp. thyme leaves
1 Tbsp. rosemary leaves
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk (I used almond milk)
2 lbs. heirloom cherry tomatoes, sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
15 1/2-inch thick slices of sourdough bread
1/2 lb. Gruyère cheese, shredded
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the onion, thyme sprigs, rosemary, mustard and a generous pinch each of salt and pepper and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and just starting to brown, about 7 minutes.
2. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until light golden, about 3 minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk until incorporated and bring to a boil. Simmer the sauce over moderately low heat, stirring, until thickened and no floury taste remains, 7 to 10 minutes.
3. On a large rimmed baking sheet, arrange the tomato slices in a single layer. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake for about 15 minutes, until softened and just starting to brown.
4. Set a rack on another large rimmed baking sheet. Arrange the bread in a single layer on the rack and top the slices evenly with the béchamel. Using a spatula, lay the tomatoes on the béchamel. Sprinkle with the Gruyère and thyme leaves. Bake the croques for about 20 minutes, until the tops are browned and the bottoms are crisp. Transfer to plates and serve hot.