The Croquette Rediscovered

Some time ago in a post, I made the half-serious suggestion that the croquette is due for a revival. I was referring to the often cone-shaped, breadcrumbed mixture of cooked meat, fish, cheese, or vegetables deep-fried to a crispness.

These were a staple of diners, middle-class restaurants, and country club lunches into the 1970s. The border between a croquette and many other kinds of enveloped fried food can be indistinct. The Chinese egg roll is a kind of croquette, so is the peppery British fish cake, but I am referring to a dish most North Americans over 50 will recognize.

Brown in colour, often containing a rich mixture of minced cooked ham, chicken, or other meat well-seasoned, two servings the size of a smallish pear made a nice lunch with a side of cooked vegetables. The filling was typically enriched with a bechamel or other cream-based binder.

I am saved from the trouble of sketching the history and world reach of this food, as a Wikipedia essayist has done an excellent job, see here. The lapidary France entry contains a plausible suggestion for the ultimate origin.

One might respond to Beer et Seq, well this is just one of many dishes that fall out of favour due to the vagaries of food fashion, why not make your own? The reason is you need the proper deep-frying equipment, not always easy to manage in a home setting.

Although, a friend showed me recently how sous vide is easily achieved at home now, so I suppose this other way to cook can be adapted to home conditions without too much trouble or (safety) risk as well.

Still, cooking for us at home means baking, broiling, shallow-frying (French toast, say), and boiling. Plus microwave. If I wasn’t going to find the croquette in a restaurant, it wasn’t going to happen.

Until I came to south Florida for a spell. I re-acquainted with the croquette in Cuban restaurants, where it is offered as an appetizer in smaller portions than I recall from the main dish, but with the same taste, especially ham croquettes.

I’ve seen them sold at the prepared food counters at Publix and Winn-Dixie. They are commonly encountered here, therefore, in the general community.

Now why this odd survival? The reason clearly is the popularity of the dish in expatriate Cuban communities. The croquette was and is a popular dish in Cuba and in some other Caribbean islands as well, especially Puerto Rico.

The transplanted communities have kept the taste going here, and as often happens the larger community takes to it too.

As Wikipedia states of the Belgian version, all comes down to the quality of the filling. But in a general way that is true of all cooking. Look, if poutine from Quebec, or Buffalo chicken wings, can adorn menus of the world and even sometimes the cartes of luxe restaurants, why not the croquette?

It already does in forms not so distant, but I mean the classic golf club croquette lunch of the mid-20th century. My guess is, the dish in Cuba descended from American influence before Fidel Castro and has continued despite, or maybe because of (the economy of the dish), his arrival.  Croquettes in Cuba are likely a hangover from an older time, as are the 1950s GM cars that still rumble through crumbling Havana.

Perhaps the dish arrived direct from Spain, where in truth it is well-known, but I have my doubts. The taste of those I’ve tried is exactly the American version I remember well from years ago. The first taste was a Proustian moment – it brought back those simple but satisfying lunches of c.1970 Montreal.

This poster offers what seems an excellent version of the Cuban style of the dish, made with ham.

A classic lunchtime or club dish, croquettes need good coffee to accompany – another Cuban specialty, so it all works well. Neither wine nor beer really suits, well, maybe a sparkling wine. Colas or juices are too rich, really.

In a pinch, iced water is just fine, another wine of the country here, indeed a hardy survivor since the 19th-century (British visitors noted the penchant with regularity).

The croquette is a phoenix, in a word, at least to Beer et Seq. One of the few birds he hasn’t seen al fresco on perambulations – including the rooster, the Egyptian goose, the swan, the duck, the cormorant, the heron –  appeared first to him on the plate at La Caretta.

 

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