What’s the best morsel of food you had on a trip? Leave a comment and let me know! Our trip to Europe seems like years, not just weeks ago with the little detour I made to Cardiakastan, that dangerous territory between Stressoslavakia and the Hospitalizacian Sea. This kind of trip produces its own special brand of jet lag involving medication side-effects, fast moving fatigue and panic at every little twinge that occurs above the waist. Since I have always maintained that cooking is a form of meditation for me, as is writing, I find that being in the kitchen and here, with you, is what feels most healing.
In the picture I’m standing on a narrow 11th century street in the gothic district of Barcelona. I can’t explain it, but when I’m around these old buildings, there is a weight I feel, a heartache, when I think of all the lives gone by, the lives lived in such surroundings, the hardships, the brutal history. (Don’t ask how I felt at The Colosseum. Oy!) I’m not the best traveller, I think my husband would say, because of this. When he sees me begin to feel crushed beneath this way of looking at things, he says I’m “switched” (like I’ve switched out of my body somehow and am floating around somewhere else), and immediately takes me somewhere to sit down and eat. Earth to Rachel!
Which leads me to croquetas. Though they may have their origins in the 11th century (not sure about this or if they did deep frying back then), they do not make me sad. They are delightful, steaming, crusty, tender, silky, satisfying little nuggets of comfort and flavor…a beschamel caught up in a crunchy container. And in Barcelona, no matter where you are, you are within a block of a place that can serve them up, mouth-burningly hot within 90 seconds. On this particular day we were a short walk away from Le Boqueria, off the chaotic tourist mecca Las Ramblas, which is basically a roof hanging over gorgeous stand after stand of the most dizzying variety of tapas and other prepared foods, produce and proteins. Those croquettas pictured above were the lightest, airiest I’ve every tasted and they were laced with salt cod or “baccala” another ubiquitous staple of Spanish cuisine.
Making croquettas are a bit involved because there are a few steps…making the beschamel, then forming the croquettes, then coating each one with egg and breadcrumbs…and there is the frying part that a lot of people don’t like to get into for many reasons..the fat content of the final dish, the odor that frying leaves in the kitchen, etc. But here is what I have to say about all that. Phooey!
For one thing, some dishes are just worth the work (though this is definitely an under 1 hour recipe….even with all the steps). For another, fried, doughy foods should not be eaten everyday, maybe not even once a week if you are watching your weight, or want to be on a heart-healthy diet, but they are the one thing, along with ice cream, I will never completely live without and feel perfectly comfortable having on my “in moderation” or “special occasion” list.
You can make them into little cylanders as I did, or just roll them into little balls, like those we had in Barcelona, for even faster prep time. Set up your flour, egg, breadcrumb station like this (below) and you will be a marvel of efficiency. Note: I used panko breadcrumbs which resulted in a highly textured and crunchy finish, but I might opt for a finer ground breadcrumb next time I do this to achieve the smoother surface found on the ones we ate in Spain. You can use either, or spin the panko in a blender for 15 seconds or so to make them finer…just let me know how they came out!
A great excuse to make these is a party! They make great pass around bites. Or if you are not the one entertaining, bring these as your contribution to someone else’s party. They will be a huge hit amongst the expected three bowls of layered chip dip, or cream cheese roll-up thingies or the dealdy hubcab of frozen shrimp on a plastic tray offering. You can lightly and quickly fry these ahead, (BTW, I set up my deep fryer on the back patio if it’s not raining, or in the garage if it is, to avoid the fry smell in the house), then heat them up in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes and they will be deliciously, mouth meltingly good to go! All you need is a simple aloli for dipping…close your eyes and think of those old cobbled and narrow streets of Barcelona. On second thought…I better not.
adapted from Joshua Whigham, Sous Chef at The Bazaar, Los Angeles
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
½ Spanish onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
1¼ cups all-purpose flour, divided
1½ cup whole milk
6 ounces rotisserie or pre-roasted chicken, cooled and shredded (about 2 cups)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 pinch nutmeg
2 large eggs, beaten
1¼ cup breadcrumbs or panko
a high heat tolerant oil, for frying (grapeseed, canola, safflower…and mix in a little olive oil for flavor if you like.)
1. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add ¾ cup of flour and stir to blend well. Cook the mixture, stirring frequently, until the flour begins to turn golden and smell toasty, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the milk in a slow steady stream, whisking continuously.
2. Add the chicken and season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir to combine and cook until the mixture is warmed through and thickens up slightly more, about 2 minutes. Adjust seasoning if needed. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the filling cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
3. Take a rounded tablespoon of the cooled filling and roll it in your hands to make a small cylinder. Dredge the cylinder in the remaining ½ cup flour, then in the eggs and then in the breadcrumbs. Repeat with the remaining filling.
4. Preheat the oven to 200° and place a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet. In a 4-quart saucepan, add enough olive oil so that you’re able to completely submerge the croquetas. Heat the oil to 375°. (My trick for knowing the temperature of oil when I don’t have an oil thermometer handy? Throw a kernel of unpopped popcorn in the heating oil. When the kernel “pops” the oil is about 350. Then I turn the heat under the oil down a bit to maintain that temp or a little above to fry whatever I’m frying.) Working in batches, fry the croquetas until golden brown, about 1 minute per batch. Drain on paper towels, then season lightly with salt. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet and place in the oven to keep warm until ready to serve.
About baking them: I know some of you will wonder if the frying step can be avoided all together and these egg-flour-breadcrumb nuggets can be simply baked to a brown and beautiful finish. The answer is: probably, but I didn’t try it. If you want to try it, I would start with a test run of two or three. Gently spray the ready-to-go nuggets with some olive oil on all sides and then bake at 375 until golden brown. You may have to turn them once during the baking process to make sure the bottoms get crispy too.
I look forward to the day when I will be posting short videos of “how to” for each of my recipes, but I don’t know when I’m going to get around to it. So in the meantime here is a great short video of Chef Joshua making these.