A homemade taste of France: Croque Monsieur

A week ago I decided it would be a good idea to try and make a representative dish from each of the stops we made on our honeymoon a year ago on my day off. Last week I made a meal of tapas to kick off the start of this culinary trip down memory lane. This week a year ago we were in Marseille, France.

There was one thing Mrs. Primate wanted to eat while we were in France, and it was surprisingly difficult to get our hands on due to the French method of dining. It was always on the menu, but never seemed to be available when we wanted to eat. It’s not anything too fancy, but it’s what we wanted. This led to a bit of frustration as we searched and searched for a place that had an open kitchen, and additionally, wouldn’t refuse to make one. The croque monsieur, was our metaphorical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Vieux Port, #marseille #france #picstitch

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On our last evening in Marseille, we visited a small bakery where we had purchased some macarons a few days earlier and the very nice, very friendly baker had two Croque Monsieur sandwiches in her case. She graciously heated them up for us and wrapped them in wax paper, and we took them to the old port, sat down, and had a little picnic next to the boats gently bobbing in the water, in the shadow of the citadel and Nôtre Dame de la Garde basilica on the hill across the harbor. It was sublime. It was the perfect moment from Marseille to recreate with a meal.

After scouring pinterest for a recipe, I decided on a basic Croque Monsieur recipe I found that looked easy enough to accomplish and a “ratatouille” made in the style of Disney’s movie about the culinary rat. Hey, we needed vegetables and this looked pretty, even if it isn’t so authentic. Four ham and cheese sandwiches, one pot of bechamel, and a few chopped vegetables later, dinner was served, and you know what? It took me right back to the old port of Marseille for a few minutes.

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Reliving our honeymoon one plate at a time

Boy oh boy, have things changed in the past year. I had a great day off yesterday, and I had invited my mother and her husband over for a tapas dinner because hey, any chance for a visit right? When I woke up yesterday I realized that a year ago I woke up on a plane descending into Madrid with Mrs. Primate on the first day of our honeymoon. I figured it was a sign that I should probably make something for dinner on days that I cook that would remind us of where we were on our honeymoon at this time a year ago. Well, dinner number one was already in the bag.

Last night I finally cracked open the Spanish cookbook that Mrs. Primate gave me for my birthday and made a couple typically Iberian delights, a tortilla with potatoes and onions, and albóndigas with a tomato salsa. In addition I added in a memory of our trip to Hong Kong (where I had my first tapas dining experience) with asparagus roasted under a blanket of manchego cheese. It turned out beautifully, and we had just enough little plates to even serve it in an authentic fashion. Things weren’t 100% Spanish though.

For dessert I made gelato. Why? Well, memories of how good the gelato in Rome was as we walked through the streets on a hot spring day have been going through my head like freight trains as the weather has started to heat up. I logged onto trusty old Pinterest, searched for a lemon gelato recipe, and came up with this. It took me about an hour, and this was only my second experience with the ice cream maker my sister unloaded on gifted to us a few months ago. Well, let’s just say the second attempt went MUCH better than the first. So much better that I’m planning to make a little straciatella when we run out of this wonderful lemon batch.

Simmering up a syrup for limonata.

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I also made a syrup with lemon and basil to make homemade limonata, you know, the Italian version of lemonade? Something about the tartness of the lemon with the aroma of the basil really works together, and the basil was grown in our own garden. Talk about a fresh flavor! I found that one part Limonata mix and two parts carbonated water make for a really refreshing lemonade. If only it had a shot of limoncello…

Well, it will have a shot of limoncello, in about 30 days when this vodka I recently poured over the zest of 8 lemons is finished infusing, and simple syrup is added. But I digress.

The Spanish bit of the meal was absolutely fabulous, and it did in fact remind me of sitting at a table in Plaza Mayor in Madrid, watching street performers, hawkers, and families mill about as we enjoyed our tapas and wine. That was the point. I’d better save some Italian stuff for a week or two until I need to remind myself of Italy. 😉

Vesuvio: mysterious Napolitano sandwich of my memory

Our trip from Rome to Naples was a whirlwind of “omg we’re going to miss the train!” You see, one of Rome’s subway lines sometimes continues onto Tiburtina, but sometimes also takes a different route, so it’s probably helpful to speak Italian and read the signs very carefully. After taking the wrong subway, waiting what seemed like forever for the train back the other way and finally getting to Tiburtina station, we boarded our Italo Treno high speed ride to Naples. It was a beautiful ride, and ended with us in Naples at probably 10:30 am or so. We found our hotel, but it was of course, too early to check in, so we dropped off our bags and figured we’d run our “things to get done upon arrival” errands for an hour or so.

We headed back to the train station and purchased our tickets to Bari, which would be our gateway to Greece, and then decided we needed lunch. We knew we wanted pizza for dinner, but not wanting to venture too far from the hotel before we could check in, and not wanting to spend much, we decided to stop at this little cafe at the outer edge of Piazza Garibaldi.

Stromboli

This stromboli only cost a Euro or so, and it was delicious.

The cafe had the most beautiful display of sammiches in the window, and the sandwiches had cool names like Vesuvio and Stromboli (anything named after a volcano is good by me.) I chose the stromboli, but the Vesuvio has haunted me ever since. All of the recipes I’ve looked at online for a Vesuvio look completely unrelated to this sandwich I didn’t order in Napoli on that warm morning. I don’t know how I’m ever going to figure out how to make the sandwich I didn’t order that day, and who knows how long it will be before I can get back to Naples and find that Cafe (if it’s even still there) and order my damn sandwich? I guess I can concentrate on other things.

Prosciutto Sandwich in Naples

This prosciutto and tomato sandwich was also quite delicious.

Mrs. Primate ordered this other sandwich that was really great, too. Does anyone make a better sandwich than the Italians? I don’t think so. There’s something about having the perfect bread, the perfect balance of bread to filling, and the perfect amount of sauce that they know how to do that results in a tidy, easy to eat, still flavorful sandwich. PLUS they seem to have a plethora of sandwiches named after volcanoes, allowing for extra cool points.

I guess what it boils down to is this: If you know how to make a Vesuvio, leave me a link in the comments? 😉

“P” is for Pizza, that’s good enough for me

#homemade #pizza with green pepper, mushroom, prosciutto, and #fresh basil. My first from-scratch pizza. Not too bad if I say so myself! #food #foodporn #foodstagram #pizzagram

 

Our evening routine goes something like this. I fall asleep on the couch while we watch an amateur singing competition on TV, Carolyn wakes me up and I put the dogs out, then we go to bed and watch more TV (ostensibly, I roll over and go to sleep at the outset of this part.) The other night though this didn’t quite go to plan. I managed to stay awake and Carolyn put something on that I can’t resist: Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The episode we watched featured a Greek man in Denver who made pizzas. Despite Chef Ramsay’s comments about the pizza, I thought it looked good enough to take a little inspiration from it and said “This week I shall make a pizza!” Except it was probably more like “mumble mumble make pizza mumble mumble.”

Carolyn assured me that we had the stuffs to make a pizza crust, and she picked up some sauce and cheese when she did the grocery shopping, and then she said “the crust recipe is in the Smitten Kitchen cookbook” and told me that we had a green pepper and implied that if I wanted any meat or anything I should get it my own damn self. So I did. On my way home from my Wednesday visit with my dad I stopped at the grocery store and picked up Prosciutto (chopped), mushrooms, and fresh basil. I really wanted to layer thin slices of prosciutto di parma on the top of the pizza with the basil and mushrooms, but I also had some concerns I can discuss at a later time that led me to the chopped kind.

At any rate, I made the crust super easy with the help of the amazing KitchenAid stand mixer we got from Mrs. Primate’s family for Christmas, rolled it out super easy (I generally hate working with flour and I couldn’t believe how easy this went), put it on the pan, and topped the pizza very lightly. Per the instructions in the cookbook, I cranked the oven up as hot as it could go and put the pizza in, keeping an eye on it so it wouldn’t burn. When it was ready we dug in, and you know what? It was really good! I could have gone slightly heavier on the cheese, but it was good nonetheless.

So a new thing has started in the Primate House. Pizza Wednesdays. I have a few ideas for pizzas I want to make (Margherita like we had in Naples, prosciutto di parma like we had in Florence, etc.), but my inspiration is often limited and muddled. So what I’m getting at is this. Please share with me your favorite pizza recipes in the comments below. If you make your own sauce share that recipe too!

Just two flavors: Cacio e Pepe – my favorite pasta from Rome

Last spring when we were in Rome, I was bent on finding a great serving of Cacio e Pepe, Rome’s famous pasta dish that uses simple flavors, black pepper and pecorino romano cheese. We did find a wonderful little place on a side street not far from the Trevi Fountain that was not only absolutely the best food we ate in the Eternal City, but also relatively inexpensive. Since then, we moved to New York, then back to Texas, and with our Texas-sized kitchen space I’ve tried to make Cacio e Pepe a few times, but last night I think I finally did it with a measurable level of success. Here’s what I did:

Charlie’s method of making Cacio e Pepe

You need this stuff:

  • long pasta like spaghetti (I saw a Barilla factory from the train in Campania, so I use theirs because I think it’s authentically produced in a factory near Bari)
  • Pecorino Romano cheese at least two cups worth, grated finely
  • At least a few teaspoons of coarsely ground black peppercorns (I use a mortar and pestle as opposed to a pepper grinder)
  • Good olive oil
  • Salt

Here’s how you do it:

Get a pot of heavily salted water boiling and cook your noodles until nearly al dente. If the package says 7 minutes, do 6. Before you drain them, pull off a couple of cups of the starchy pasta water, you need this for the sauce.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat and add a generous amount of olive oil. Once the oil is nice and hot, add your black pepper. It’s going to give off this crazy floral scent that only smells faintly of black pepper but mostly of delicous. Once the pepper is toasted a bit, ladle in about a cup of the pasta water, and put the pasta back in.

Start adding your cheese. Turn that pasta inside and out and stir vigorously, add more cheese, keep turning. You’re looking for an evenly textured pasta sauce made of the cheese and pasta water. If it clumps keep stirring. I use a pasta rake and a spatula. This is going to take a few minutes so keep working at it until it’s even. If it gets too dry, add more of the starchy water. When the sauce is smooth, dish it up and enjoy.

It’s a super simple pasta dish to make, it just requires a bit of work to make it happen. I know that when I took my first bite of my Cacio e Pepe last night that I could picture myself in that tiny little restaurant with a glass of wine and my beautiful bride sitting across from me thinking that we should go toss a Euro in the Trevi Fountain so that we would one day go back to Rome.

Foods of (Marseille) France

Marseille was a delicious stop on our honeymoon, but not one without its frustrations. As it turns out, the French are quite picky about what time they’ll serve which foods, if anything at all. After an overnight bus ride of fairly epic discomfort you just wanna nom, ya know?

Well, minor difficulties aside, the food was delicious and we really enjoyed sitting outside at the little brasseries lining the old port of Marseille. I had a lot of deliciousness: boulliabase, profiteroles aux foie gras, macarons, soupe de poisson, blah blah blah. My favorite was perhaps the most simple and juvenile option, a plain old croque monsieur.

I hope you’ll enjoy this little display of food pr0n I’ve put together for you. Have a snack ready for afterwards. 🙂

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