The other day, I was listening to an old podcast of Evan Kleiman’s show, Good Food on KCRW. I love this show – it’s thoughtful and smart and gives me a window into what’s going on back home in Southern California, where I am from.
I especially enjoy hearing their report from the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, which explores what’s in season and looks at the shopping choices of local chefs. Kumquats. Cherimoya. Surinam Cherries. All are exotic products that I no longer have easy access to and which thus do not play a part in my cooking or eating here in the Pacific Northwest.
Living vicariously, I suppose, is what I do by listening to the show, especially the Market Report.
So the particular podcast on was a show from around the holidays. Evan was talking to Mark Bittman about deep frying. They were having a nice conversation about how he has ended up using his pressure cooker as a deep fryer because it is narrower than many of his other pots, which means he can use less oil.
Not only did he talk about the kinds of things he likes to deep fry (Beets! Potatoes!) but also the types of oils he uses. Including…olive oil.
For me, the smell of olive oil, no, the very thought of olive oil immediately elicits memories of the year I lived in Spain straight out of college. Back when I barely had an inkling of who I was.
Across from my apartment in Nicasio Gallego near the new train station, there was a shop where each day I would see housewives enter with their large plastic jugs and bottles, ready for another fill up of the magical golden liquid. I would watch wondering how much oil they actually used in their cooking (or did they just drink it?) if they were going in for what seemed a near-daily replenishment.
Then there was the busy older part of town with its dusty, narrow streets. I would ride through them on my bike, the one purchased at the Sunday flea market. It was the same bike which was eventually stolen from me, reappearing at the Sunday flea market soon thereafter, which I then repurchased probably for more than what I'd originally paid (What can I say; I was attached to that bike).
In the afternoons, Sevilla seemed almost completely deserted. Only a foreigner would be pedaling around on a creaky stolen-then-not-stolen bike at that time, just as lunch was being cooked and enjoyed, soon to be followed by a long siesta.
But for me, that was precisely the best time to wander about alone. The town was mine. Its streets were so still. The best part was the smell of olive oil, which perfumed the air. People had their windows open. They were frying and sauteeing and doing everything else a person might do with a warm pan of olive oil at lunchtime.
It has been a while since I have been anywhere in Spain, including Sevilla, which I came to love so much that for a long time after I returned home, I felt a distinct ache inside whenever I thought of it. Even now, each time I smell olive oil cooking, bite into a briny little olive or taste a sliver of meltingly rich jamon I am transported yet again.
Can a memory take the form of a deep-fried morsel? If the answer is yes, then this croqueta is it. I remember eating croquetas filled with warm béchamel and jamon serrano and coated with crunchy breadcrumbs on the outside.
A memory can alter over time. In this case, I’ve changed it slightly by making a classic croqueta and including a local (and distinctly Pacific Northwest) ingredient – hot-smoked pink reefnet salmon from Lummi Island Wild. Its dense saltiness is the perfect foil for the creamy béchamel.
If you want to add anything additional to the bechamel and salmon, a bit of green is nice. Say, half a jalapeno or some chopped parsley.
You can also follow in the steps of the venerable Edna Lewis (whose cookbooks I have been reading lately) and put a slice of ham into your frying medium of choice (she liked to use pastured lard) to give your final product additional flavor. And speaking of frying, no need to fear a heavy, oily croqueta if you follow this tip: Heat your oil/fat to 350 degrees (use a thermometer) before cooking and all will be well.
A croqueta is just a croqueta. Or is it? When I was twenty-one, I didn't fully comprehend the way time shifts and slides and never stops dancing forward. It's important for us to continually summon our most vivid memories if we are to never forget who we are. If that summoning means taking the time to pat some breadcrumbs around a mound of cold bechamel and salmon and gently slide it into some hot olive oil, then so be it.
Food memories mean the most when we can make them into something our own, into the here and now using the best products we have around us in the place we currently call home.
Smoked Salmon Croquetas
For the bechamel filling:
3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ an onion or leek, minced
1 cup whole milk
Generous pinch of paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup diced hot-smoked salmon*
For the coating:
2 ½ cups of bread crumbs (I used homemade, with bread from The Breadfarm)
Olive oil for frying, or fat/oil of your choice (lard, grapeseed oil, ghee, etc.)
Heat the butter in a saucepan and sauté minced onions until transparent. Stir in the flour and cook it briefly then slowly whisk in the milk a bit at a time until all of it is incorporated. Cook, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Stir in the smoked salmon and spread the mixture into a dish. Refrigerate until it stiffens and is almost solid.
Lightly beat eggs with a tablespoon or two of water in one dish. Place the bread crumbs in another dish. With moistened hands, form the chilled mixture into balls or cylinders using a tablespoon or so for larger croquetas and less for smaller ones. Dip each croqueta first in bread crumbs, then in the beaten egg, then in bread crumbs again, taking care that they are well covered.
The croquetas will soften slightly while you work with them, so handle them gently. Chill breaded croquetas in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, or put them in the freezer like I do for 10 minutes or so. This works well enough.
Heat enough olive oil in a small vessel (preferably taller/narrower than wide a la Mark Bittman, to use less oil) to generously cover the croquetas. Fry the croquetas a few at a time, until golden, about 3-4 minutes.
Makes approximately 15 larger appetizer-size (5-6 bites each) croquetas or 18 smaller tapas-size ones.
*Note: Hot-smoked salmon, which is fully cooked is a different product than cold-smoked salmon or lox. This recipe uses the hot-smoked variety.
Recipe slightly adapted from latienda.com.