When I moved to my little corner of Devon a few years back, it was winter, and a month or so later the rest of the country ground to a halt after a heavy snowfall. “Never snows here,” I was told. “Well, hardly ever. Not for twenty years, anyway.”
It’s made up for it now: overnight, a deep blanket of the white stuff has settled, the car is half-buried, and the hills look very pretty in the distance. I’m sure readers in some parts of the world would laugh at it; it’s only a few inches, after all, but we’re simply not used to it. We don’t have the infrastructure to deal with snow, nationally, locally or even personally. It’s always a surprise when it happens, and catches us unawares. And, in our defence, would you buy snow chains or snow tyres if you’d only use them for a few days every six or seven years? Better to stay at home, and wait it out.
I live in a small town, only a short walk from the shops: although they may not have had all of their deliveries, I hardly think there will be many shortages. But I don’t doubt that there are many people in more rural districts hereabout that are totally cut off.
Which led me to wonder what they would eat.
I don’t know about you, but I always have the potential to create meals from what I have in store. I’m not talking about developing a bunker-mentality, but there is always food in the freezer, and tins, dry goods and other staples in the cupboards. I often shop daily for my fresh ingredients, and my cooking is inspired by whatever I find. On a day like this, though, we may have to scratch together something from what is already in store.
An easy idea is a toasted cheese and ham sandwich, or, as it is known in France, a Croque Monsieur – or, as it is sometimes misspelled, Croc Monsieur, which I like, as it suggests a big, crunchy bite, which you’ll certainly get here. I’ll give you my recipe for the perfect cheese and ham toastie, and then some ideas how you could improvise if you don’t have all the ingredients, and don’t fancy going to the shops.
You can make this as a single round sandwich, or as a double-decker: the choice is yours.
So, two or three slices of bread (you do keep an emergency loaf in the freezer, don’t you?)
As much cheese as you like for the filling, plus a little more for the topping – traditionally in France it will be Gruyere or Emmental, but a good cheddar or any other tasty cheese that melts well will do.
A few slices of ham.
You probably won’t need any salt, due to the cheese and ham, but a liberal grinding of black pepper would be a good idea.
Now, the biggest problem with a toasted cheese and ham is that if you put the ham on top before grilling, the cheese will hardly have melted before the ham is overcooked and dried up. If you put the cheese on top, the ham can slide off the toast. My solution is to grate the cheese and shred the ham, mix them together, and go from there.
Toast the bread. Butter the slices if you like, or not as you prefer. Load up one slice (or two, if you’re making the double decker version) and pop under the grill until the cheese melts. Assemble your sandwich, sprinkle the top with more grated cheese (a proportion of Parmesan or similar is good here), and slip back under the grill until it’s melted.
If you like, you can top with a fried or poached egg, and you have a Croque Madame. Either way, you have a great store-cupboard meal for a cold day.
But, what if you don’t have all the ingredients, and you can’t get to the shops? Well, surely, improvise.
I don’t always have ham in my fridge, but when I do, I usually make sure that I shred any leftovers and freeze them. Likewise gammon. Still no ham? How about bacon? It won’t officially be a Croque, but who cares? What about some left-over roast beef, chicken, or lamb? How about some diced sausage or chorizo? Or use whatever other meat you have, or perhaps a tin of tuna or sardines. If you are vegetarian, or even if you are not, how about a slice or two of fried aubergine, or a spoon or two of cooked lentils or beans?
No sliced bread? Stack it up on tortillas, pack it into pitta bread pouches, slice a floury bap, a bagel, or go Mediterranean with some ciabatta.
And feel free to add whatever you like; whatever you have, whatever you fancy, whatever’s tasty. We’re talking improvising here: if you don’t even have any breads in the house at all, you could use the other ingredients to make a pasta sauce – you’d effectively have a carbonara,
Some versions of the Croque Monsieur use a mornay, or cheese, sauce. I tell you how to make that here. Make it quite thick, mix in the ham or whatever you are using, top the bread and grill as above.