Travelling is always such a strong inspiration for cooking and thinking about food differently. As an outsider in a foreign place, often where language acts as a barrier, food becomes the quickest and easiest way to connect with the local customs and rituals. Everything you eat becomes a window into the culture and histories of the world around you.
Last week, while we visited cosmopolitan Paris, I had a fascinating chat with Marie, the owner of café-come-lifestyle store Maison Bastille. I had ‘met’ Marie earlier in the year, when she purchased a copy of Community from my website. It fascinated me that someone in France would be interested in cooking my type of salads. Marie is somewhat of a pioneer for lighter, fresher food in Paris, a food culture which she points out is still so heavily reliant on the rich textures and flavours of stews, roasts, pastries and bakes. Even as a vegetable-loving tourist, it was hard to come by lighter food. I ate my fair share of Salade de Chevre Chaud (warm goats cheese salad), but I also saw light at the end of the tunnel with some eye-opening meals – the stand-out being the fresh-flavoured Japanese inspired soups, salads and bento boxes at Nanashi.
As we reached our next destination in Provence, in a small market town called L’isle Sur La Sorgue, I have started to think about French food, and ways of lightening it up, adding fresh ingredients, incorporating more vegetables. With an indomitable Savoy cabbage in hand, this is my version of the classic French Croque Madame, which is basically a cheese and ham toastie. My take features sautéed cabbage with walnuts – but feel free to use whatever greens or nuts you have available. Kale, cavolo nero, silverbeet, chard or spinach would also work well, as would almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts or even sesame seeds. You can also vary the bread according to your preference – I actually used brioche bread (okay, not the lighter option) but you can use sourdough, or seeded breads too.
Savoy cabbage and walnut croque
This sandwich is more main meal, than snack! It is rather indulgent, with the rich nutmeg-accented béchamel sauce and cheesy filling, but it is given a lighter edge with the addition of cabbage and nuts. Serve with a leafy green salad, if you wish.
| Serves 4 |
- 8 slices of sourdough bread (or bread of your choice)
- 250g Savoy cabbage, thinly sliced (or whatever greens you like)
- ¼ cup walnuts, crushed
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4 slices emmental or gruyere cheese
- Sea salt and black pepper
- 30g butter
- 20g plain flour
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 250g milk
- ½ cup cheddar cheese
- Sea salt and white pepper
Begin by making the béchamel sauce. In a small saucepan, melt the butter and then stir in the flour. Continue stirring for about 60 seconds until the butter and flour are well combined. Gradually pour in the milk and stir quickly to form a smooth sauce. Add a pinch of nutmeg. When the sauce is thickened, take off the heat, and add in the cheddar cheese and stir to melt the cheese. Add a pinch of salt and white pepper.
Next, sauté your greens. In a frypan, add the olive oil and cabbage with some sea salt and sauté on medium heat for 6-8 minutes, until the greens are wilted and soft. Move them around the pan – you can allow some of the leaves to caramelize slightly to add extra flavour. Take off the heat and set aside.
Place a frypan on low-medium heat and preheat the grill.
This is how to assemble each sandwich. Butter a slice of bread and place it buttered side down onto the hot frypan. Allow it to fry for a minute or so, until golden. Remove and place the bread, fried side down, on a chopping board to assemble the rest of the sandwich. Layer some sautéed cabbage with some crushed walnuts, and top with cheese. Place a slice of bread over the top to form the sandwich. Next, spread a layer of béchamel sauce over the top of the sandwich, and then place it under the grill for about 2-3 minutes, watching closely to make sure it doesn’t burn. It’s ready when the béchamel sauce has browned and is starting to bubble.