FOOD WISE: Reflections on a year of Food Wise

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

Croque Monsieurs — a delicious version of a grilled cheese. Be sure to add the ham! (Courtesy Photo)

Happy anniversary……to me! It doesn’t seem possible that we’ve been having these wonderful conversations about my favorite subject, food, for right at a year now. Where does the time go?

I was thinking about what I might write about to commemorate the occasion. It occurred to me that one of the things I get a lot of questions about is why I write about what I write about. Oh, I certainly get the typical kinds of questions, too. Stuff like “What famous chefs have you cooked with?” and “My second cousin’s son’s best friend is a chef in Australia. Do you know her?” Then there are the folks who like to play stump-the-chef with have you ever questions. You know what I’m talking about. “Chef Reneé, have you ever cooked (fill in the blank with just about anything)?”  And then there are the how-to questions, which are some of my favorites because I love teaching. So it thrills my soul when someone calls (this just happened yesterday) to ask how they can tell if their shrimp has gone bad.

Even so, there have been more than a couple of questions over the last year about how I choose what to write about. Obviously, sometimes it’s really pretty easy because some event or holiday is coming up and I can offer recipes and ideas about how to make those times special and memorable.

Then, a few weeks ago, someone asked the question in a little different way. Here’s what he said. “Reneé, you cook some really impressive, complicated dishes. (Aw, shucks!) You cook fancy food for highbrow events. You’ve won lots of competitions for cooking the most complicated, fancified dishes I’ve ever heard of. How come you never write about any of that? Why do you mostly write about simple comfort topics?” That really threw me for a loop. For once, I was speechless. Hard to believe, I know. Okay, okay, you don’t have to agree so quickly!

I’ve been mulling this thing over for a couple of weeks now and here’s what I’ve come up with. It comes down to a belief system or maybe purpose would be a better term. I’m not trying to get all philosophical on ya, but I feel sure that I have some things to do in my lifetime. You know what I mean? Stuff! Important stuff! But no matter where this journey leads me, the most important thing I’ll ever do in this life is to nurture and care for my family and friends. I’m pretty sure most of you feel the same way. That’s why talking about fresh, simple, beautiful ingredients and recipes in a simple way is so important in my mind. Those are the conversations that encourage us all to get back to basics. To gather together around the table with great conversation and food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. You know exactly what I’m talking about. As you think about your own life, wouldn’t you say that some of your most cherished memories involve lingering around the kitchen counter or the dinner table, sharing a great meal and maybe a glass of wine or three with those you love?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really love the artistry of creating dishes that are crazy over the top. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than creating a new dish with combinations of ingredients that you wouldn’t think would go together, and yet when tasted blow your mind with an explosion of distinct flavors that somehow connect to make the perfect bite. I get great pleasure in working fervently to perfect my crazy concoction. There I am, stooped over my masterpiece, like all those chefs you see on TV, food tweezers in hand, carefully placing each component in just the right position. I step back from my masterpiece to inspect my work from all angles and admire my own handiwork. My client is going to adore this dish!

Truth be told, I really am somewhat of a food science geek, too. The way different forms and strengths of heat can be used to manipulate the food is endlessly interesting to me. I love that I can figure out different ways to bend the food to my will. The science behind why food reacts the way it does under different circumstances is fascinating and this knowledge makes me a far superior cook than I ever would have been otherwise.

Here’s an example of some of the cool food things that can be done. Many of you will remember that I spent some time working in Boston at America’s Test Kitchen. While I was there, I attended a lecture by Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking. This guy is regarded by the food community as the foremost food science expert of our time. In culinary school, all of us carried around his book with reverence, referring to it as the bible of cooking. The man seriously knows his stuff. He and another guy were talking about molecular gastronomy. They lectured at great length about a process whereby practically anything could be turned into viable, great tasting, edible food. They could take dry, dead grass and turn it into broccoli and potatoes. Fascinating! This, they said could be used to end world hunger. I thought to myself….sure, except for the fact that it’s so expensive that it won’t solve world hunger in any near future. No one can afford to use it. But it sure is fun to learn and talk about, and maybe one day we’ll figure out how to make it work.

But for now, how much better to write about the things that meet us where we live? Stuff like getting our kids to eat a little healthier in the face of the childhood obesity epidemic our country is facing. In the process, maybe we’ll even eat a little better ourselves. How about learning how to stretch a food dollar as the price of groceries is constantly rising? Or supporting our local farmers so we can eat food that is real and hasn’t been genetically modified?

All that pie-in-the-sky stuff is lots of fun, but I prefer to write about the things that make a difference in folks’ day-to-day lives. Things that might spark an idea that makes it a little easier, a little quicker for you to get dinner on the table despite your crazy schedule.

The great Julia Child once said, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.”

I love our conversations and hanging out in the kitchen together. I hope you find something interesting here from time to time that inspires you to cook a little more and check back in here at “Food Wise” once in a while.

Croque Monsieurs

Here’s fancified grilled cheese. The best grilled cheese you will EVER eat! Enjoy! Adapted from Barefoot Contessa.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups hot milk

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch nutmeg

12 ounces Gruyere, grated (5 cups)

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

8 croissants

Dijon

8 ounces honey ham, sliced but not paper thin

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Melt the butter over low heat in a small saucepan and add the flour all at once, stirring with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes. Slowly pour the hot milk into the butter–flour mixture and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce is thickened. Off the heat add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, 1/2 cup grated Gruyere, and the Parmesan and set aside.

Halve and toast the croissants, place the slices on 2 baking sheets and bake for 4 minutes. Turn each slice and bake for another 2 minutes, until toasted.

Lightly brush half the croissant with mustard, add a slice of ham to each, and sprinkle with half the remaining Gruyere. Top with another piece of toasted bread.  Slather the tops with the cheese sauce, sprinkle with the remaining Gruyere, and bake the sandwiches for 5 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the topping is bubbly and lightly browned.   Serve hot.