I once waited tables at a French restaurant in my hometown. It was the best restaurant in town even if it wasn’t fully appreciated by the public at large. The owner was a surly chef from Perpignan. He was a stickler for impeccable service, so that I can’t dine out anymore without silently criticizing my waiter in his voice for a thumb on a plate, serving from the right, or being too present or too absent. He was prickly and given to things like throwing out a customer for sending back a drink (“The bartender made this drink perfectly, please leave.”), raging endlessly about a more popular rival (“Who can go out to dinner, see artificial flowers on the table, and not leave immediately?” and “They smother all their meat in Béarnaise to hide that they have miscooked it.”), arguing with his son for drinking a cola while eating onion soup (“Would you like me to go get some cheesecake so you can crumble that up in it, too?”). But the thing that set him off more than anything else was when a customer suggested adding croque monsieur to the lunch menu. After all, “This is not a beer bar!”
As much as I admire his dual commitment to making a great food and being a total jerk about it, I’m a little sad that he never experimented with a more casual menu for lunch, because while French fine cooking has cast such a shadow that American restaurants have only started to fully emerge from it in our lifetime, downscale French food is still pretty rare. And let me tell you, the French are not too bad at making bar food. Croque monsieur is a perfect example. On the face of it, it’s just a gussied up grilled ham and cheese–nothing special. But when you get down to the details, the nuttiness of the Gruyère combines perfectly with the sweet smokiness of the ham. The crunch of the egg-dipped bread contrasts with the gooeyness of the cheese. Yes, it’s just a grilled sandwich, but it’s such a good grilled sandwich.
We’ve been experimenting with croque monsieur a lot lately. Gruyère and Emmentaler are traditional but we really prefer the former. The thing that’s made the biggest difference is the bread. If it’s too sweet, it ends up feeling too much like French toast, so buy something with no sugar, if you can (it’s harder than it seems!). For even and predictable heat, we used our electric skillet. You can also use a stovetop skillet – just be sure your choice has a good-fitting lid. And finally, we took the traditional route and skipped the berenaise and cheese on top, but added a little spinach to contrast with all that buttery cheese.
4 slices bread
1/2 cup Gruyère, grated
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup spinach
2 slices good ham
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Heat an electric skillet to 350 degrees, or heat a large skillet over medium-high heat (on a scale of 1 to 6, let’s call it a 4).
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and salt. Set aside.
Use a fork to whip together 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard. Spread evenly on one side of each slice. For each sandwich, add half the cheese, 1/4 cup spinach, 1 slice of ham, and then the remaining cheese.
Melt the remaining tablespoon butter in the griddle or skillet.
Dip each sandwich in the egg mixture, turning to coat both sides.
Place both sandwiches in the prepared skillet. Cover, and cook for 4 minutes. Flip, cover again, and cook until sides are golden brown and cheese is melted, 3 – 4 minutes.
Slice in half and serve.