Quarantine Cuisine: Chef Romain Avril’s croque monsieur for your stay-at-home weekend brunch
We’re asking Toronto chefs to show us what they cook up using basic pantry supplies while they self-isolate at home
Like many of us, chef Romain Avril is confined to his home. We asked the social-distancing chef to whip us up a meal with ingredients he already had on hand. His recipe: his favourite French sandwich.
“I have to write to another 30 recipes for my cookbook—I was so much better at getting these recipes done before—back when I had so much more to do,” says chef Romain Avril, who made a name for himself at La Société, Lavelle and, most recently, Neruda.
Last year, Avril decided it was time he set out on his own. “I needed to open my own restaurant—one that was in line with my own philosophies, and, most importantly, one with a healthy work environment,” says Avril, who’s spent the last year hunting for the perfect space while juggling a slew of jobs. Before the city went into lockdown, he was working as a culinary instructor at George Brown College, doing TV and radio gigs, writing a cookbook and working as a restaurant consultant.
On March 13, three days before the NBA suspended its season, Avril signed a lease on a space. But when the pandemic panic really hit Toronto, Avril decided it probably wasn’t the best time to open a new restaurant—so he cancelled the contract and (when he’s not making cooking videos on Instagram) has been busy working away on his cookbook.
Although Avril is trying to eat a healthy, mostly plant-based diet to offset his lack of physical activity, he occasionally indulges in the French comfort food he grew up eating.
Avril’s parents lived in different cities: his dad worked in Paris, while his mom lived with the kids in Les Sables d’Olonne, a small town on the western coast of France that’s about the size of Orillia. She worked full time, and was exhausted by the end of the day, so one of her go-to quick dinners was a croque monsieur. Avril still loves them—except now they’re only a sometimes treat for him, not a weeknight staple.
This recipe is a two-part process. First, you’ll make some bechamel. Then, the sandwich. (We should also note that Avril made his own gosh-darn tomato soup to dip his croque monsieur. Feel free whip up some of the canned or jarred variety.)
4 slices of bread (Avril recommends sourdough)
5 tablespoons of butter
2 slices of country ham
4-6 slices of strong cheddar
3 tablespoons of flour
1 cup of milk
1 clove of garlic, smashed
½ shallot, sliced
1 bay leaf
¼ of a cup of grated cheese (whatever you have in your fridge)
Start by infusing your milk. Simmer it on low heat with garlic, shallots and the bay leaf for about five minutes. Avril says you can substitute onions for shallots, and thyme leaves for bay leaves, if that’s what you have. To ensure the milk doesn’t burn, stir continuously and keep the temperature low. If large bubbles start to form, remove from heat immediately—this means your stove is too hot and that will scald the milk and ruin its flavour.
Avril uses a slotted spoon to remove all of the infusing ingredients before stirring two tablespoons of butter into the milk. “Making the roux is the trickiest part of this recipe,” says Avril. Slowly add the flour to the milk-butter mixture while whisking continuously.
Avril thinks cheese curds are the best for croque monsier béchamel sauce, but he says you can use any cheese you have in the fridge—cheddar or mozzarella will work just fine. Stir in the grated cheese and then season it all with salt and pepper.
Now that your béchamel sauce is ready, it’s time to assemble the sandwich.
Spread the remaining butter (so, about three tablespoons) on the outside of each slice of bread, just like you would for a grilled cheese sandwich. Remember to save a bit of the butter to grease the frying pan.
Slather the bread in béchamel sauce, and pile on the cheese and ham. Here, Avril is using up his cheese ends, so his sandwich includes a mish-mash of comte, cheddar and Swiss. He’s no purist, and says sharp cheddar will do.
In a buttered pan, put the sandwich butter face down and cook it until golden brown, flip and do the same thing, so that both sides are toasty.
He then slathers a bit more béchamel sauce on the top of the croque monsieur before popping the in the oven at 400 F. After about five minutes—when the cheese becomes a gooey mess—brunch (or lunch or dinner or linner) is served.
This sandwich is so rich, Avril only ate half of it. The next day, when he went out for groceries for the first time in a week, his car was rear-ended. He was so furious, when he got home he angrily ate the other half cold, straight from the fridge. It wasn’t ideal. On a car accident–free day, he’d reheat it in the oven and throw an egg on top, turning the monsieur into a madame.