It’s time for a sacred family heirloom: the croqueta.
Croquetas form a vital part of Spain’s tapas culture and the Basque culinary cult of the pintxo. In fact, the worst thing you could say to a Basque would probably be that you don’t like their mother’s croquetas. (Gasp!)
Every Basque matriarch has her own, well-guarded secret recipe and of course the entire family swears by it. I was lucky enough to have my mother-in-law teach me her version and I am conserving it for posteriority here. They taste so good that they shouldn’t be restricted to the Basque country only: slightly crispy on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth soft and full of flavor on the inside.
If you first hear of croquetas and think “Uhm, isn’t that fried, breaded mashed potatoes from the freezer?”, you will be at the same starting point that I was at a few years ago, before croquetas became my favorite pintxo. I arched a very steep brow at the initial description – “thick bechamel with bits of ham or mushrooms or cod, then breaded and fried” – in the beginning, too, but don’t let that deter you.
The most traditional croquetas, which you will find on the pintxo list in any Basque bar, are croquetas de jamón (with ham), croquetas de bacalao (with cod) and croquetas de setas/boletus (mushrooms, possibly even porcini mushrooms), but where you can eat them and where they taste merely “meh”, where you get them freshly fried and where just reheated, and where the kitchen is using too much bread and too little (or low-quality) ham is a serious topic of conversation (the Basque are dead serious when it comes to their food).
You can also buy croquetas pre-cooked and frozen at nearly any Northern Spanish supermarket I’ve been to, and some of them aren’t even half bad, but they’re usually too heavy on the breading and really, where is the fun in buying something pre-cooked and with additives when you can make it on your own? (although if you really should find yourself in the Basque country and wanting to buy croquetas, look up the nearest Merka Okela and get a package of fresh croquetas de jamón from their fridge section).
With this recipe, I’m going for the most classical version, which are croquetas de jamón. They aren’t that difficult to prepare, actually, you just need some time: First, for chopping everything really, really, REALLY finely. Second, for continuously stirring the bechamel, which can take up to half an hour. And third, to roll the actual croquetas.
It’s a food that is best prepared in batches (the quantity described here yields between 40 and 50 pieces), to make the most of the effort. Once breaded, croquetas can be easily frozen (I usually freeze them in portions of four or six); just remove them from the freezer half an hour before you want to fry them.
Croquetas de jamón (Ham Croquetas)
- 750ml milk (not skimmed)
- 1 tbsp. butter
- 5 heaped tbsp. flour
- two dashes of salt
- 10og Serrano ham, or other uncooked ham, preferably not in slices
- 3-4 eggs
- 1/2 an onion, medium-sized (or, if it’s rather small, an entire onion)
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- breadcrumbs (or panko, if you have), about 300g
- In a small pot, set up water to boil and boil one of the eggs until hard, for about 10-12 minutes. Rinse off with cool water afterwards, crack the shell and peel. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
- Meanwhile, set to chopping: the half onion (you can use a small blade blender for this one, just make sure you don’t turn the onion into pulp. Also, be careful not to use too much onion – it makes the croquetas softer and sweeter, and they mustn’t be too soft or too sweet!) and the ham – what you see below is by far not fine enough, the bits should be about a third the size. Most ham that you can buy in bits also needs to be cut down further.
It is a bit of a religious question what kind of ham you use – I believe that local hams work fine, but if you married into a Spanish family, they may insist on Serrano. We usually get ours in whole chunks (not whole hams, although that would be very, very Spanish), then cut it into thick slices and chop from there. Chopping may easily take 15-20 minutes, depending on the ham. Put on some music and be patient. The finer the pieces of ham, the smoother the taste later on.
- Next, chop the egg (also somewhat finer than the photo you see below. Those bits are still too big. – Also, let me apologize at this point for the light quality in the photos today. I had to use artificial light since it’s winter and I made the croquetas in the evening).
- Once you’ve chopped the onion, ham and egg to small bits, heat up the tsp. of olive oil in a pan and very gently sautée the onion (only the onion!) at low to medium heat, until translucent and fragrant, but not browned. Then pull the pan off the stove and set aside.
- Now put a pot that holds at least 1 1/2 litres of liquid onto the stove. Warm the milk to at least room temperature (the microwave may not be a traditional Basque kitchen tool, but it works well here). Then take about one cup of the milk and stir in the flour (works best with a small wire whisk) until it is dissolved and there are no lumps in the mixture.
- Heat up the tbsp. of butter in the pot, making sure it sizzles a little, but doesn’t burn.
- Then, in small portions, add the milk-flour mixture. Stir continuously. The sauce should never thin too much. Neither should it stick to the bottom or burn, so stirring it is – low to medium temperature is usually enough.
- After you’ve whisked in the whole milk-flour mixture, add the rest of the milk in small portions, always making sure that the sauce doesn’t thin too much. Only add the next bit of milk if you’ve convinced yourself that the sauce has thickened sufficiently again.
- Keep stirring and stirring and stirring. And stirring. I wasn’t kidding about that half hour. The ultimate goal of this bechamel is to have it very thick and condensed (this is also why it uses much more flour than a normal bechamel). My mother-in-law’s instructions were: “Keep stirring, first until it rises, then until it’s so thick that it peels off the walls of the pot.” And that can indeed take up to half an hour. It’s easier if you work with a sous-chef and take turns. Otherwise, it’s a killer arm workout.
- When the bechamel has condensed to almost half its original volume in the pot (and once you can’t really feel your arms anymore), take the pot off the stove. Then, stir in first the onion bits.
- Once the onion is evenly spread throughout the sauce, add the bits of ham and egg. (or, mother-in-law’s special trick, you could also first add a small handful of grated cheese here, and then add the ham and egg) Stir until evenly dissolved.
- Pour the bechamel mixture into a tupper container or a casserole dish, cover it with a bit of plastic wrap and allow it to cool. That can be half an hour (minimum) on a cold, cold cellar windowshelf in the winter, or a night in the fridge (that’s what my mother-in-law usually does). Your bechamel won’t have been solid at the time you poured it into the dish, but it will be solid by the time you revisit it. And that’s just the way you need it.
- Now for the rolling and breading. Overall, the goal is to keep the breadcrumb crust thin (if you look at my photos, it turned out a little too thick this time). Also, the whole process works a lot better if you have a partner in crime – one does the portioning, forming and first dousing in breadcrumbs, and the other does the egg bath and final breading.
- On your kitchen counter, lay out three flat plates (I used a higher glass dish for the egg, which was a bad idea since it is a lot harder to move the croquetas out again. Don’t make the same mistake, best regards from my wife.) Onto the first, pour breadcrumbs. In the second, beat another one of the eggs (you may need another and possibly even a third as you go through the bechamel dough) until it is an evenly colored mixture. In the third, pour breadcrumbs again.
- Now for the process: take a teaspoon and cut off a teaspoon amount (not more! The bread/sauce ratio needs to be adhered to, and croquetas that are too big will likely break or dissolve while frying them) of the solid bechamel mixture. It will still feel somewhat wobbly, perhaps, but that is fine. Put it into the first plate of breadcrumbs and shape it into a little cylinder with your fingers. If you work on your own, transfer it to a tray and first do all the croquetas up to this step.
- Next, give every croqueta an egg bath in the egg whisk, using two forks to maneuver the croqueta (there’s just one in the photos, since I took the pictures before my wife came in corrected that error). Allow excess egg liquid to drip back into the bowl/plate before continuing.
- With the forks, deposit the croqueta onto the third plate and roll it once more in breadcrumbs, until it isn’t sticking to the plate anymore. Try to keep the breadcrumb layer as thin as possible, though. Then place the finished croqueta on a tray and continue with the next one, until the entire bechamel sauce (“dough”) is gone.
- Slow Food, definitely!
- Set aside the croquetas you want to use right away (you can maintain them for a night or two or three in the fridge at this stage, too), and freeze the rest. I usually roll them up in cling film in rations of four or six, not letting them touch, and then place those little packages inside a larger freezing bag that then goes into the freezer.
- Now for the frying. You can either go the traditional root and pour two fingers of decent olive oil into a pot, heat it up until is forms sizzling bubbles along the stem opf a wooden spoon you hold into it, and then gently lower 3-4 croquetas at a time into the oil and fry them until toasted on all sides and “until the croqueta dances”, as my mother-in-law puts it. Make sure the oil doesn’t buble too much, otherwise the croqueta might break and dissolve its filling into the oil.
- Take out the croquetas with a fork and place them on a kitchen paper towel for a moment to allow the excess oil to be soaked up, then serve immediately.
- Then, there is the nontraditional, low-fat route of frying that my wife invented for me when I was placed on a very strict diet for a few months, and we’ve kept it ever since: heat 1-2 tsp. of oilve oil in a pan until sizzling hot. At the same time, preheat the oven to 100°C. Then gently transfer a portion of croquetas into the pan, making sure they are coated with a bit of oil at the bottom side. After a minute (keep the heat on medium to high and watch out so that the croquetas won’t burn and/or melt and spill their insides!), turn them onto the next side, until you’ve toasted all three or four sides of each croqueta (depends a bit on the shapes you made) to a golden hue.
- Carefully remove the croquetas from the pan and place them in a small casserole dish (no oil, just as they are).
- Place the dish in the preheated oven for 5-10 minutes, about middle height.
- When you take out the croquetas, you can wrap them for a minute in a paper towel to make sure you soak up any possible excess grease. Then serve right away. Croquetas go extremely well with pica in the summertime (beer/lemonade blend) and with a sip of crianza in the wintertime.