by Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin, New Yort New York
"It's a good sandwich," says Eric Ripert in his typical understated manner, referring to his decadent lobster-filled version of the classic croque monsieur. From what everyone has told me about Ripert, this is like calling him a good chef—huge understatement. At the risk of sounding cliche, it might be more accurate to say that he's a good person. Those who know Ripert can't say enough nice things about him. Within minutes of shaking his hand I understand what they mean. I, too, feel as if I'm drunk on Ripert Kool-Aid. With best-selling books, TV shows, three Michelin stars for his restaurant, and a best friend in Anthony Bourdain, no less-in person, he lives up to everything I've heard about him and so much more.
Ripert never stops smiling, a big white toothy grin. He's humble about all he has achieved and gracious when paid a compliment about his book, a specific recipe, or his restaurant. His celebrity status has changed nothing. "When you are inside the restaurant," he says, "there is no such thing as a celebrity chef, and I am mostly here. Luckily TV doesn't take that much time." I suspect that it's not the kitchen that is keeping him grounded, it's just who he is.
When I meet with Ripert at Le Bernardin, he is excited to look back through time to see his recipe in a historical context. He has a collection of old cookbooks at home—mostly French—that he likes to read for inspiration. He tells me he will look through them for early croque monsieur recipes. Perhaps the simplicity of the sandwich means it never made it into the likes of Escoffier (he pulls out his copy from the shelf—it's not there). Or perhaps it's too lowly? It's hard to find references to its first cousin, the American grilled cheese sandwich, with or without meat, in any of the early American cookbooks. Perhaps the closest recipes are those for Welsh rarebit—a mixture of cheese, butter, and often ale that's melted together in a pan, spread on toast, and sometimes broiled.
Ripert's recipe is an adaptation of a croque monsieur that was on the menu at Le Bernardin with smoked salmon and caviar instead of the classic ham. "I like croque monsieur a lot," he says. "It always reminds me of my grandmother and cooking with her. She used to have a press with a heart shape and we would press it into the bread and it would make a design on the sandwich."
"The recipe itself is very easy," says Eric. "Cooking the lobster is the most challenging part. You have to kill the lobster and make sure that it doesn't suffer, at least as little as possible. I think it's difficult because it's an animal that's alive in front of you. It's not like you buy a steak of lobster, so this can be emotional for a lot of people. If you are an omnivore, it's a good experience because it gives you much more respect for the ingredient as you see the entire living animal."
Eric Ripert's take on the classic grilled cheese sandwich and its close relative from across the Atlantic, the croque monsieur, is beyond gourmet, ces't magnifique!
1. To cook the lobster, bring a pot of salted water to a boil (the water should be well seasoned but not salty). Kill the lobster by inserting a knife in the head, just behind the eyes, and cutting down between the eyes. Add the lobster to the water and simmer for 7 minutes. Remove the lobster from the water and allow it to cool. Once cool, remove the claws and tall from the lobster, crack the shells, and carefully remove the meat, keeping it intact. Trim the end of the tail and pull out the vein. Cut the tail and claws into 1/4-inch-thick slices, discarding the fatty claw meat inside the pincers. Cover and keep refrigerated until ready to assemble the croque monsieurs.
2. Using a vegetable peeler, slice the Gruyere cheese very thinly.
3. Lay the bread out on a table. On 6 slices, place the Gruyère cheese in an even layer, and on top of this place the sliced lobster, using a mix of tail and claw on each piece of bread. Sprinkle the lobster slices with lemon confit and chives. Close the sandwiches. Using a serrated knife, cut off the crusts. (You may make this recipe up to this point a few hours in advance, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.)
4. Before serving, spread the softened butter evenly on the outsides of the sandwiches. Preheat a nonstick sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the sandwiches to the pan, Gruyère side down, and saute for 2 minutes. Turn them over and sauté for 1 minute, or until nicely browned on the lobster side.
5. To serve, slice the croque monsieur on the diagonal, then on the diagonal again, making four triangles. Arrange the triangles on a plate. Repeat for the other three sandwiches. Serve immediately.
Lemon confit is made using an old technique for preserving lemons that originated in Morocco and is a favorite condiment of Ripert's—make a jar of it once and you can use it year-round.
1. Cut the lemons in quarters, but not all the way, and pack in kosher salt in a sterilized canning jar (a 1-quart canning jar will hold all 6 lemons).
2. Refrigerate for at least 1 month, but preferably 3 months to a year. Remove a lemon whenever you need it. Discard everything but the rind, rinse well. and mince finely for the sandwich.
"Let the bread become golden brown and crunchy and then repeat with the other side to make sure the bread doesn't get soggy. You want the crunch on the outside with the moist middle."
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This page created December 2011
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