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Will it croqueta? Miami pushes the limits of a favorite snack.


By Christina Morales


Breakfasts from a bakery here start with shots of robust coffee and a beloved finger food shaped like a cigar. These golden appetizers run out faster than cake at parties. And every week, restaurants churn out thousands of them.


Croquetas are as ubiquitous as the Cuban sandwich. They’re eaten anytime, as a snack, a party staple or breakfast. Made with béchamel and minced ham, chicken or fish, the bite-size cylinders are rolled in breadcrumbs, then deep-fried.


“Something as little as croquetas is such a cultural movement,” said Jonathan Andrade, who is in charge of making croquetas for the restaurant Islas Canarias and its brand Croqueta County, often considered by fans to be the “gold standard” of the food’s classic varieties.


While Spanish and Cuban immigrants brought the croqueta to Miami, chefs today are taking the croqueta’s basic framework and adapting it to reflect the county’s increasing cultural diversity. So many bakeries and restaurants now have a notable croqueta — with innovative flavors like ham, bacon and Gouda, or short rib — that it’s hard to even list them all.


Croquetas are also a symbol of local heritage. They’re put on T-shirts, celebrated at an annual festival and popularized on social media. Croquetas are one of the trademarks of Cuban food, a hallmark of celebration and a cherished grab-and-go item among the rush of the area. Croquetas are so respected in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, that the counties even declared a Croqueta Day in 2020.


Islas Canarias, named after the Canary Islands, where Andrade’s great-grandparents are from, was opened by his grandparents in 1977. Over many decades, the restaurant has perfected a recipe from Andrade’s great-grandmother.


But when his sister, Eileen Andrade, traveled to South Korea in 2013 and learned about its cuisine, it opened a world of possibilities. At her other restaurants, Finka Table and Tap, Amelia’s 1931 and Barbakoa by Finka, the siblings experiment with flavors like kimchi mojo pork, jambalaya shrimp, Buffalo cauliflower and an Elena Ruz sandwich.


“That kind of opened a path to think outside the box and be creative,” Andrade said.


Miami’s first croqueta bar, Dos Croquetas, opened in 2019. The menu includes classic flavors such as ham and chicken, along with matching sauces, but staff members encourage customers to try more novel versions like the creamy spinach, the bacon cheeseburger, the Buffalo chicken, or the labor-intensive 305, with picadillo and maduros, which takes eight hours to make. The medianoche croqueta (which inspired Andrade to make his Elena Ruz-sandwich version) incorporates all the elements of the sandwich, like pork and pickles, in every bite.


“Our goal is to transition people from the traditional flavors,” said Alec Fernandez, who estimates they sell about 17,000 croquetas a week. “It’s the ultimate respect to turn this old-school item, and modernize and evolve how people perceive a croqueta.”


Vicky Carballo, Fernandez’s aunt, who largely develops Dos Croquetas offerings, said she focuses on surprising depths of flavor, since “we are coming into a market with croquetas on every corner.”


Other places, like Vegan Cuban Cuisine, which opened in 2020, are filling a need for croquetas to fit a vegan lifestyle. Lismeilyn Machado, who learned to make croquetas with her family in Cuba, sells about 4,000 croquetas a week with her husband, Steven Rodriguez, from their tiny restaurant. Little by little, she replaced each of the croquetas’ most important ingredients with vegan substitutes like cashew cream and a soy-based ham. A garbanzo croqueta is made with chickpeas and cassava flour to cater to people with food allergies.


No one has pushed the croqueta’s limit like Breadman Miami, which serves mini croquetas on a vanilla layer cake. Andy Herrera, the bakery’s owner, was inspired by a piece of cake at a party that was touched by a croqueta. He thought the sweet, salty and smoky flavors went well together, and when a customer challenged him to make a cake that was different, “the croqueta cake was born.” On top of selling about 1,200 croquetas daily, the bakery makes at least three of these cakes a day. The bakery has even done croqueta wedding and quinceañera cakes.


“The only thing I can tell you is that after owning a bakery, it’s astonishing how many croquetas people eat,” he said. “It’s pretty breathtaking.”



Ham Croquetas


Recipe from Jonathan Andrade

Adapted by Christina Morales


Crisp ham croquetas, gooey on the inside, are as synonymous with Miami as the Cubano. Deep-fried and shaped like cigars, these ham snacks are a classic Cuban dish. Though many new Cuban bakeries and restaurants play around with the ingredients, ham remains the most popular croqueta base. This version, from Islas Canarias Restaurant in Miami, is considered by many to be gold-star croquetas that hit the ideal sweet and salty notes. Squeeze some fresh lime on top, drizzle with hot sauce and serve with saltine crackers.



Yield: About 20 croquetas

Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes, plus overnight chilling



Ingredients:


1 pound honey ham, coarsely chopped

1 Spanish onion (12 ounces), coarsely chopped

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 2/3 cups whole milk

1/4 cup curly parsley, finely chopped

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

2 cups finely crushed soda crackers or plain breadcrumbs (4 ounces)

1 large egg, room temperature

Vegetable oil, for frying (about 4 cups)

Lime wedges, hot sauce and saltine crackers, for serving



Preparation:


1. In a food processor, pulse the ham and onion until coarsely ground. Set aside.


2. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Quickly whisk in 1/2 cup flour and cook, whisking constantly, until smooth and tan, 2 to 3 minutes. While whisking, gradually add 1 cup milk, then continue whisking until the mixture thickens to the consistency of soft mashed potatoes, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 cup flour and use a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula to stir until very thick, firm and a darker shade of brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Some browning on the bottom of the pan is OK.


3. To the pan, add the ham mixture, parsley, garlic powder and salt, and vigorously mix until the ingredients are evenly incorporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a sheet pan lined with plastic wrap or parchment paper and pat into a 9-by-7-inch rectangle. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or preferably overnight.


4. Cut the chilled paste into 21 (3-by-1-inch) rectangles, then gently roll each into a 3-inch-long cylinder. Make sure the croquetas are smooth and without cracks. Place the croquetas on the sheet pan and chill in the freezer for 30 minutes.


5. Place the cracker crumbs on a plate. In a medium bowl, combine the egg and remaining 2/3 cup milk, and whisk until combined.


6. Submerge 4 to 5 chilled croquetas in the milk mixture to thoroughly coat, then transfer immediately to the crackers, making sure the croquetas are coated in the crumbs. Return to the sheet pan and repeat with the remaining croquetas. Freeze again until firm but not frozen, 15 to 30 minutes. Don’t freeze for longer than 30 minutes as they may burst in the hot oil.


7. Toward the end of the chilling time, fill a small Dutch oven or heavy saucepan with oil to a depth of 1 1/2 inches. Heat over medium-high until a deep-fry thermometer registers 350 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, use a croqueta as a test piece: Carefully drop in 1 croqueta. If it immediately begins to fry and brown, the oil is ready. Carefully add 2 to 3 croquetas and fry, turning if needed to evenly cook, until golden brown,1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and let rest for 1 to 2 minutes before serving. Repeat with the remaining croquetas, working in batches and adjusting the heat to maintain the oil temperature. Serve immediately with lime wedges, hot sauce and saltine crackers.

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