I have a problem with, no, let me rephrase that, it’s not really a problem, but I have a predisposition toward collecting little scenes that I see during the day and immediately turning them into images or metaphors for something else. There’s nothing wrong with this at all, of course. In fact, it’s quite handy at times.
But, today I want to share three vignettes with you that I like so much, I’m refusing to let my brain get all allegorical with them, even though it would be easy enough to do so. I’m simply going to share them with you. And if you’d like to turn them into your own metaphors, by all means, go for it.
The first, I saw when I was running in the arboretum near our house this weekend. It was swarming with birders, like bees pacing busily about their hive. A group of them was standing a little ways back from a tall pine. Each person in the group had binoculars plastered to their eyes. They all peered upward, craning their necks, searching for something in the empty tree. Meanwhile, a giant, chestnut colored red tailed hawk swooped down from the tree right behind them. It stood on the ground, unnoticed, for a while, cocking its head at the birders curiously. Then it took off, still unseen. I chose not to say anything.
The second, I saw while I was out walking yesterday afternoon. I puttered along, trying to identify flowers, and stopping to smell the unmistakeable eau de spring hanging thick in the air. Suddenly, I came upon a yard that, as far as I could tell, was hosting a convention for all the plastic Easter eggs that had been hidden and never found. I did a double take. In my second take I realized that they were tulips, not plastic Easter eggs, but some of the brightest tulips that I have ever seen. Shocking orange, purple, yellow, and pink. I still almost went and checked to see if they had candy tucked inside them.
Finally, the third. Several days ago, I was taking Squid for a walk. When we rounded a corner we discovered a cat and a mouse in the middle of the street. For reasons I could not make out, the cat didn’t appear to be trying to attack or torment the mouse in any way. As much as anything, it looked like a crossing guard, safely shepherding the rodent over to the next curb. They looked up, startled, when Squid and I appeared. Everyone froze. The animals all stood eyeing each other in a three way standoff. A dog, a cat, and a mouse.
Squid concentrated primarily on the cat, clearly thinking “friend? Play? Friend? Do you play?” The cat was focused on Squid clearly assessing whether this was a dog whose eyes should be scratched out or who should be run away from. The mouse sat down in the middle and looked back and forth between the dog and the cat. I have absolutely no idea what the silly thing was thinking. Dumbfounded, perhaps. From my position on the outside, I couldn’t stop myself from trying to mediate, in the most truly ineffective manner for the situation. I tried reasoning with each, in particular warning the mouse that she should probably skeedaddle, because she stood to lose the most. None of them listened. I don’t think their English acquisition was quite at that level. Finally, when all else failed, I yanked Squid away and we continued on our walk. I have no idea what happened to that cat and mouse. I’ve been thinking of it ever since.
And now, having presented you with stories, I will present you with lunch. It’s the least I could do, right? Of course, like anything topped with an egg, this does not have to be a lunch, just because it was my lunch. It would also make a wonderful breakfast, brunch, or supper. And, like anything topped with an egg, it is perfection.
This sandwich is a modified version of the croque madame. Croque Madame is the hat (that looks suspiciously like an egg) wearing spouse of Croque Monsieur, who is himself a classic French bar snack. And, when you put the words French, bar, and snack together, you know the result will be something well worth eating. The pair are, in essence, grilled ham and cheese, but with a little hon hon hon and je ne sais quoi, in the form of a Gruyere laced bechamel sauce and the bubbly, oozy magic that happens when you put a bechamel topped sandwich under the broiler.
At one of my several preferred destination sandwich locales in Boston, they make an open faced version of the croque madame that swaps out the ham and replaces it with greenery. They call her the green madame, and she was the inspiration for this sandwich. But, while the shop version of the sandwich tends to use sauteed collards, to my way of thinking, why not get caught up in the season and use an early spring vegetables instead?
I had it in my mind to use ramps, which are wild leeks. But, elusive little creatures that they are (they have to be foraged, I believe), there were none available at our market. I opted for young green garlic instead (garlic while it is still tender, before the cloves have formed), but you could just as well use green onions, or leeks that you’ve halved first. The essential bit is that green, grassy, springy, oniony bite that they all offer.
I roasted the green garlic until it was tender. In the process it also develops delicious dark charred spots and crispy tips, a perfect contrast to the creamy bechamel. You can whip up the bechamel while the garlic (or other allium) is roasting. Just, whisk together melted butter and flour, then titrate in your milk bit by bit, whisking it to kingdom come the whole time to keep any lumps from forming. The sauce you season with just salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. And cheese. A nice handful of grated Gruyere. The pungent funk of the cheese is wild and beautiful tasting with the sweet sulpherousness of the roasted garlic.
Top crusty slices of toasted bread with ever more cheese, then mound on the roasted vegetable in a soft heap. Pour, spoon, smear, and slather the bechamel over the top, and then subject them to the roaring heat of the broiler until they are bubling and burbling and browning in spots. Don’t forget to fry up some eggs with golden, runny yolks. Then slide these atop your sandwiches and grab your knives and forks.
You could slip a thin slice of ham into your sandwich as well, but I found it to be better without. Good ham is delicious, but it’s also a bossypants, and drowns out the voice of the garlic just a bit. Let her be green, your madame. It’s spring. Let her be green.
The Green Madame (serves 2)
- 2 bunches of young spring garlic (no cloves formed yet) (you could also use ramps, or leeks, or green onions…)
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus a bit extra for frying eggs
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 1/2 cup whole milk (about, I always wind up making bechamel by feel, rather than true measurements)
- 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 cup heaping, of grated raw milk Gruyere
- 2 generous slices of crusty, country style bread
- 2 large eggs
- Preheat your oven to 425F. Trim the bottoms, and the uppermost part of the green tops off of your green garlic. Toss them with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Spread them out on a rimmed baking sheet or large roasting pan, and put them in the oven. Roast them, stirring occasionally, until they are quite soft and have dark brown splotches all over them. Then, remove from the oven and set aside.
- While your garlic is roasting you can make your bechamel. In a small saucepan, heat the butter until it is foaming. Whisk in the flour to form a paste, and turn the heat down to medium low. Cook, stirring for about 2 minutes to keep the flour from tasting raw. But don’t let it turn brown. We’re not making a roux.
- Whisk in your milk bit by bit. Whisk vigorously with each addition of milk until the mixture is smooth. Be sure not to add too much milk at a time because that can definitely cause lumps. When all the milk is added and you have a loose sauce, stir in your nutmeg and a pinch of salt and pepper. Continue to cook over medium low heat, stirring pretty much constantly, until the sauce has thickened, 6-7 minutes. Then, remove from the heat and whisk in 1/4 cup of your gruyere. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper to your liking.
- Toast your pieces of bread until they are golden, then put them on a baking sheet. Sprinkle the remaining grated gruyere onto the pieces of bread, and mound some roasted spring garlic on each. Spoon bechamel generously over the top of each sandwich.
- Heat your broiler to high and put the sandwiches under it. Broil – keep an eye on them – until the bechamel is bubbling and starting to brown in patches. Then remove from the broiler.
- While the sandwiches are broiling, melt a bit more butter in a small frying pan. When it is foaming, crack the eggs into the pan and sprinkle them with just a bit of salt and pepper. Fry them over gentle heat until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny. When they’re ready, put an egg on top of each sandwich. Eat with a knife and fork. Tres sophisticated.