Tuesday, October 13, 2015

La Croqueta - a little slice of Espana in my kitchen today

In between planning and managing private events and parties, I'm not one to sit down - unless of course it's to pound out a blog post because of something I ate or am about to eat or am inspired to cook then eat, or...   A day doing nothing is rare and that's perfect in my book.  So today, after a busy couple of weeks of smooth flowing, successful weddings and parties, I found myself in Whole Foods getting my weekly basics, and was hoping to additionally find a bit of fodder for my keyboard, as it had been over a week since I had written anything and was pretty much jonesing.  I tried to write a few days back, as I had taken an epic 3-hour hike on the East Ridge Trail in Armstrong Woods, a little slice of redwood paradise about 45 minutes north of me (and a couple of miles outside of Guerneville, CA), but the dry and tasteless brisket I tried to devour at a local restaurant afterward was just "so so," and as you may have noticed, I don't like to write negative restaurant reviews, so...

I knew I had potatoes in the pantry at home and thought, "Hmmmm, some sort of Japanese style croquette sounds pretty good...," basically mashed potatoes, meat or veggies, formed into a patty, coated in Panko bread crumbs, shallow fried then served with Tonkatsu sauce.   The Japanese call them Korokke, which, if you sound it out, is: Ko -roke-que (as in que pasa or que sera, sera).  It is interesting and sometimes sort of funny how the Japanese adapt an English term to their language, phonetically pronouncing it by how the word looks and sounds to their ears.   I.e. que is like saying the letter "k" and the ending of the adapted word often has an "eh" on the end.  Am I getting too off track?  Probably. Do I know the ins and outs of how the Japanese adapt English etymology?  No, definitely not.  However, just believe me that they call it a "korokke" and that when they say it, it sounds like they are trying to say croquette but can't figure out how to do the ette part.  I realize I'm on a tangent (who, me???), made even funnier because the Korokke isn't even what I ended up making, but it got my brain working along those lines. Crunchy, coated goodness was on my inner menu, and as one thought lead to another in this food oriented little brain of mine,  another style of croquette quickly followed: the Spanish style "Croqueta," traditionally made with chicken (and sometimes ham) in a creamy sauce and coated in breadcrumbs and fried.   A perfect crunchy bit of creamy deliciousness to go along with a beer, a nice glass of Sangria or a more serious cocktail.   Croquetas de Pollo make a regular appearance in tapas bars all over the world.  My Brazilian friend, M, swears they originated in San Paolo, but then again, he thinks everything good is from Brazil (and is often correct).  As I pondered this thought, I remembered it was his birthday just yesterday (my mind has a way of working  in organized randomness) so took it as a sign that Croquetas de Pollo were going to be my dish for the day.

I had never made Croquetas de Pollo before, but took it as an additional sign I  was on the right track when I mentioned them to my sister and she said, "oh, don't you remember Mom's super delicious turkey croquettes?" What!!??  My Mother was a Julia Childs and Graham Kerr fan (and by default, so was I) and she was also the "Queen of the Leftover" - as she had to feed 6 children, a husband and sometimes a great uncle on the mindset of a depression era childhood.  Leftovers were a regular appearance several times a week on our suppertime table.  Turkey croquettes?? okay, they are sort of coming back to me now. ( Oh my!  Can i get to the topic of this blogpost already? you may be wondering?!)  Again though, this is how I come up with stuff, taste bud memory, leading to taste bud memory, leading me down a path to a dish that practically invents itself.

Okay, so, back to my kitchen and today's recipe.  The best ones I recently had were at Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg  (http://www.starkrestaurants.com/bravas.html), a little gem tucked away from the square serving craft cocktails, the requisite sangria (red or white) and a pretty authentic menu. Theirs are bite-sized and served in a little cone, sprinkled with salt, and oozing with creamy goodness: Jamon Serrano, chicken and gruyere cheese.  They are addictive.

As often is the case with a dish I've never made before , I browsed online to find a recipe that sounded like it was going to produce the taste and texture I wanted.  It isn't unusual for me to look at several recipes and combine them, adjusting for personal taste but looking for commonalities between their techniques and ingredient proportions.  The recipe I used as my base is on one of my favorite websites:  http:\\www.seriouseats.com.  The founder used to work for Cook's Illustrated and I find their food research and recipes pretty spot-on (not to mention, the writing is good).  It is a pretty basic recipe combining chopped chicken with a thick onion studded Bechamel sauce, forming them into little two bite sized nuggets, using a standard breading, then shallow frying.  That's pretty much the long and short of it.  I'm outlining my version of their recipe below, as I adjusted some things for my personal taste, always encouraging you to do so, to trust your instincts.  The more you do it, the more cooking won't seem like a daunting task and may possibly transform you into an inspired food freak like myself!

Because I'm a super geek, I actually own the perfect trio of "breading pans" for the 3 pan method: flour-egg-breadcrumbs.  I picked them up for probably less than $10 in an Asian restaurant supply store in SF.  I'm always silently congratulating myself every time I whip them out, because seriously, how many people do you know that have special trays for their 3-pan coating system?  Yeah, I didn't think so.

flour, egg, breadcrumb - in that order

You'll notice here that the photo shows regular breadcrumbs (at the far end).  You can use those or Panko bread crumbs.  I actually changed my mind after this photo and opted for panko as you will see in future photos - it made the texture a bit more crunchy.   The most important thing about breading is to do in the same order each time: Coat with flour, dip in egg (or gently roll in egg), then roll in Panko (or regular breadcrumbs).   Don't manhandle these things, as they will fall apart easily.  Take your time.

Here's the recipe I adapted:

1 boneless/skinless chicken breast (yields approx 1 cup cooked, diced chicken)
1-2 T olive oil for sauteeing
1/2 cup cooked chopped sausage, ham, chorizo - your choice
6 T butter
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped fine
2/3 cup A/P flour
2 cups milk (or substitute unsweetened non-dairy beverage)
a few pinches of salt (used here and there)
1 tsp nutmeg (used on chicken and then the rest in the mixture)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

for breading
2 eggs whisked with 1/4 cup of water
2 cups (give or take) Panko or other breadcrumbs
1 cup A/P Flour

2 cups or more oil for frying (Canola, Peanut or Mild Olive Oil)

Basic ingredients:
I just happened upon this in my freezer - but ham is the traditional

Fresh nutmeg is preferred but I was out, so...

chicken breast seasoned with salt and nutmeg

onion with root left on for easy chopping 

cooked chicken and sausage, ready to go
I actually had some leftover chinese sausage in the freezer, but ham or chorizo or any cured pork product will do.  The spanish would use straight up ham.  I didn't bother to buy any,  so I scoured my freezer for some sort of pork product, defrosted one link and chopped it up pretty fine.  I seasoned the chicken breast with salt and ground nutmeg and sauteed it, covered,  on medium low until cooked through (approx. 5 minutes each side) - be careful not to brown it too much, as you want the texture to be tender and not caramelized.  After letting it rest for 5 minutes, I chopped it into 1/2" cubes and set that and the sausage aside.  (You can use leftover chicken for this, no need to cook up a fresh breast)

For the main component of this dish you will be making an onion-white sauce, or, to get technical, a Soubise.  White sauce, better known as Bechamel, is the foundation for many other sauces and involves simply butter and flour (cooked together to make a "roux") and added milk.  Knowing how to make a decent white sauce is super easy and the foundation for great classics, most commonly Mornay, or Cheese sauce.  So, for your Soubise:  Melt the butter on medium heat and add finely chopped onions.  Cook until translucent (but again, not browned) - about 10 minutes.
onions sauteed until translucent but not browned
Something I can't stand about recipes is that they don't seem to ever turn out as good as you want them to.  Part of the problem is little tricks and asides are often not written in.  So, in an effort to not do that here - why wouldn't you want to go ahead and melt the butter/saute the onions in the same pan you pulled the chicken from, chicken bits, drippings and seasonings included?  You should!  

While your onions are cooking, heat milk in a saucepan over low heat.  Add a little crack of pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.  You just want the milk hot, not boiled or scalded.  

After onions are finished, sift 1/3 cup of flour into butter/onion mixture.  Stir well (keeping heat on low).  Add the 2nd 1/3 cup of flour.  Stir well.  Mixture will be quite lumpy.  Cook and stir around for about 2 more minutes.  Add hot milk and with a whisk in hand, continue to stir and dissolve the flour/butter mixture for about 3-5 more minutes.  The mixture will be thick and paste-y by this time, the only lumps being from the onion chunks.  (Incidentally, this is much more flour one would use for a classic white sauce, but remember, we are making croquettes so we need it to be thick).  Also incidentally, the technique of making a sauce out of fat and flour and liquid is the foundation for most gravies:  Meat drippings = fat, flour = well, flour, and broth or stock = liquid, just thought I'd tangent here for a second...
the "roux" before hot milk is added
Thick Soubise sauce, lumpy from onion bits

sauce plus chicken, to be gently combined

Remove mixture from heat and gently fold in the sausage and chicken.  Taste and season with salt if needed.  Get creative.  You could add some chile for a zing at this point, or just leave simple as is.

Spread mixture onto a baking sheet (that has been sprayed with a little non-stick spray) and put into refrigerator for 15-30 minutes to cool and firm up (it won't take long).  After cooling, add 3/4-1 inch oil (I use canola - as I buy it in gallons from Costco for this purpose, but a mild olive oil would work) to a heavy bottomed straight sided pan (cast iron even better).  Heat oil to about 350 F. While oil is heating you will be breading your croquettes.  Stay with me, you are almost done!

Pinch off and form croquettes into meatball size balls.  They don't roll like meatballs, as there are no protein fibers holding them together.  Gently keep them pinched together.  Using your three pan method, roll in flour, then egg (be sure to coat all surfaces, then panko (or regular) breadcrumbs.
egg wash after rolling in flour
Coat in panko, sprinking it over at first to create a non-stick surface
Have a plate or clean baking sheet handy to put all your ready to fry croquettes on.  Line a dish or pan with paper towels or something absorbent to place your finished croquettes on after they come out of the fryer.  I use a candy thermometer to check my oil for temperature.  Most people don't have one of those laying around.  To test for temperature, throw a few breadcrumbs in the hot oil.  If they immediately float and start frying, you are probably ready.  To be sure, try one or two croquettes and they should start to fry immediately.  Flip them over halfway through to get browned on other side.  
First side then second - Almost done!
Remember, the inside of these doesn't contain raw ingredient, so you are really only looking to brown them well and heat them through.  Be sure to sprinkle with salt while hot and serve immediately!
Open a cold beer and enjoy these tasty little bites!  Be the hit of your next cocktail party.  Hell, make a pitcher of Sangria (easiest thing ever, but for another post!) and wow all of your friends!

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