This past Saturday, I had a craving for a dish that I normally associate with one of my favorite places in the worldâ Cafe de la Mairie, which is located on the Place St. Sulpice in Paris. Although the name says “cafe”, in my mind, it’s more like a Parisian version of a diner. Yes, instead of waitresses in pink uniforms who look like Flo, there are male-only waiters who wear black; and then there’s the view, which is not the New Jersey Turnpike, but the elegant church ofÂ St Sulpice located across the square (and made more famous by its appearance in The DaVinci Code).Â Those distinctions aside, what I mean by comparing Mairie to a diner is that the food is simple, the menu never appears to change with the wind or the latest culinary trend, the prices are reasonable, the place is always filled with regulars, and the feeling not-subdued. In the afternoon there are school children, at lunch there are chic French ladies in between errands, in the morning there are men on their way to work who just lean up on the counter in the front for their presse. When I go it’s typically for lunch and I always order the same thing: a croque monsieur (grilled cheese with ham) and a salade mixte, a green salad which comes with a little carafe of creamy vinaigrette. So very simple, but depending on how it’s executed, can either be completely satisfying or forgettable. Mairie’s croque is the firstâ the bread is from Poilaine, the cheese is gruyere, the salad always sprightly and very fresh.
Here’s a quick recipe for my Saturday version. What makes this more than just a grilled cheese is the bread and the cheese. You don’t need fancy fillings or techniques or blanket of bechamel, all you need is bread and cheese that’s top quality, a bright green salad on the side…and a healthy love of butter doesn’t hurt.
My Croque Monsieur
Take two long slices of good brown bread. Coat both sides of each slice of the bread with softened butter. On one slice of bread place two thin slices (you don’t want this grilled cheese to be bulky–think more Catherine Deneuve, less Guy Fieri) of a baked ham of your choice. Slather the ham with djion mustard (I like whole seed but you can also use the smooth kind). *Option: at this point I sometimes add some sliced cornichons if I have them on hand. On top of the ham add several thin slices of gruyere cheese or something similar and sharp). Top the cheese with the second slice of buttered bread.
Heat a large skillet or griddle over medium heat and add a big pat of butter (you can substitute olive oil if you’d like). Once the butter melts, swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Place the sandwich in the skillet and then place something heavy on top, like a press or a kettle. Cook until the bottom is golden brown (about 4 minutes). Flip and do the same on the second side.
Once the cheese looks melted and the bread is golden and crispy on both sides, remove it from the skillet. Let rest for a minute or two while you ready the salad. Cut the sandwich into triangles (I think triangles are more enjoyable to eat than rectangles, but use any geometry you’d like).
Serve the croque monsieur with a side of salad dressed with a nicely-acidic vinaigrette (any left pooling on the plate is lovely to drag your grilled cheese crust through).