I’m really excited about this post because this is just more than your typical recipe post. This time, I get to tell you a little bit more about me, and an experience in my life that was truly amazing.
That’s how I started this blog post several months ago. Truth is, it’s actually pretty difficult to write this because there’s so much to say and I have no idea how to meaningfully summarize it. I’m a better cook than I am a writer, without a doubt.
Have you ever wondered why this blog is called The Cocina Monologues? It’s obviously a cheeky little play on words, but also the word “cocina” has a little bit of nostalgic meaning for me – it means kitchen in Spanish. I have a bit of history with Spain and an affection for Spanish culture. After I graduated from college in 2004, I traveled to Madrid to live with a Spanish family for six weeks and take intensive Spanish classes. Two other girls from my college, Julie and Nadima, also went to Madrid at the same time. We each lived with different families, but obviously we were very close and spent a lot of time together since we were the only other people we knew thousands of miles from home. After those six weeks were up, we traveled around France and Italy for two more weeks. Those eight weeks were undoubtedly some of the best and most unforgettable of my life. It was such an amazing experience to be immersed in other cultures, living a truly foreign lifestyle.
Each morning, I got up and took the smelly, crowded Madrid metro to school. I attended class and took notes on what looked like graph paper (because that’s what they use over there) until 1 or 2 p.m. Then, the three of us would walk around Madrid, get a bite to eat, shop, go to the internet cafe because even though it was the best time of our lives we were horribly homesick, or just wander around and experience the culture and Spanish life.
Everywhere you walk around Madrid, you see these shops called “Museo del Jamon” with what appear to be pig legs just hanging around called (in the picture below, look closely through the glass at the top of the shop and you’ll see them hanging there). Jamón is their version of ham (pronounced hah-MOHN, not like something Michael Jackson would shout). But I never understood the “museo” part, because that literally translates to museum. It kind of freaked me out for a while, but you actually just get used to seeing it because it’s so prominent in their food.
Obviously, food is a huge part of any culture, and it was definitely something we explored as part of the Spanish culture. Sure, they have McDonald’s over there, but even that tasted different. And they serve beer there! Anyway, we ate a lot of tapas (“small plates” – think appetizers) as we would walk around exploring. Some of our favorites were tortilla espanola (kind of like a cold omelette with potato, which is way better than it sounds), paella, and croquetas. Oh the croquetas. They are traditionally made with ham, but the family I lived with also made them with chicken and fish.
My last week in Madrid, my host parents invited Julie and Nadima over for homemade paella. This was a big deal because in their culture, you don’t just bring anyone into the home. Once, they told me I should invite Julie over for coffee, to which I replied that she didn’t drink coffee. What I didn’t understand was that was their way of saying it was okay for her to come into the home. Leandro, my host father, had to spell that one out for me. So here’s a picture of that farewell gathering.
The last day before I left Madrid, Leandro agreed to show me how to make croquetas because I loved them so much. Now, mind you, this was before I really got into cooking, and there was also the translation element, so reading this recipe I wrote on graph paper is quite interesting. There are some critical elements missing, such as, oh, amounts and times. But after all these years (almost 8! Wow!), I decided to dig out that recipe and give it a try.
I have to say, eating these croquetas after I made them was pretty nostalgic. The recipe was really simple, so I thought for sure it must be missing something or that it wouldn’t turn out how I remembered them. But I think they turned out amazing and pretty true to Leandro’s cooking. I wanted to make them the first time as closely to how Leandro told me as possible. Now that I’ve made them once, I have some ideas of small tweaks and additions for future editions.
So, that’s a bit of the story of croquetas and a time in my life where I learned a lot about other cultures, a whole lot about myself, experienced the worst sunburn of my life, drank my fair share of sangria and tinto de verano (a wine drink), laughed a whole lot, saw many historical sites that are older than America itself, stayed in more than a few shady hostels, savored authentic Italian food, took cold showers in Rome (not by choice), and walked all over Western Europe in flip flops. From learning to gross out foreign men in response to unwanted cat calls to orange and tuna picnics, it was the most memorable and eye-opening experience…but you just had to be there. There’s so much more to share, but hey, this is just a food blog. Maybe someday I’ll attempt to make paella and share some more about my trip.
(Croquetas de Pollo)
- 2 bone in skin on chicken breasts
- 1-2 stalks of celery
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- 2 bone in skin on chicken thighs
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 T extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 5 heaping tablespoons of flour
- 2- 2 1/2 cups of milk (I used 2%)
- 2 eggs
- 1-2 cups plain breadcrumbs for coating
- canola oil for frying
- salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to low – about 250 degrees.
Place the chicken, celery, and 1/2 onion in a large pot. Add enough water to cover the chicken and give everything enough room to move around. Season with salt and pepper. (You can use different chicken pieces if you like, this is just what I had in the freezer. You could also poach some fish or used cooked ham; you are just going to need about 2 cups of cooked meat.) Boil gently for about an hour, or until the meat is falling off the bone. Remove skin and bones and chop the meat very small.
Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the onion, salt, and pepper and cook for about 4-5 minutes or until the onion is clear. Then stir in the chicken. Sprinkle the flour over top of the onion and chicken and cook for about a minute. Stir in the milk and salt to taste. As the mixture bubbles, it will begin to thicken, and once it does, push it aside and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Stir in the olive oil and cook, stirring constantly, until it is a thick paste (5-10 minutes). Cook out all of the liquid possible.
Spread the mixture out on a large plate/dish and set it out to cool. Once it is room temperature, cover it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator over night.
The next day, with a teaspoon (or your hands), form the “nuggets.” It’s a sticky job, but it’s worth it. You can cover and refrigerate them at this point until you are ready to fry.
In a shallow dish, beat the eggs. Put about a cup of the breadcrumbs in another shallow dish (you can add more as you go if you need). Dip the nuggets one at a time in the egg and then in the breadcrumbs. Fry in a fryer or in a dutch oven with canola oil at 325-350 degrees until brown on the outside. You will need to flip them over to get both sides brown. Lay the finished croquetas on a baking sheet with a baking rack on top of it and keep warm in a 250 degree oven until they are all cooked and ready to serve.
If you’ve read this far and want to stick around for a few more pictures, here you go!