Cooking Techniques: Croquettes

“But you play that, not eat it!”

I confused my son last week because I made croquettes (kro-kets), and he thought I said, “Croquet (kro-kay).” He thought it was funny that we were going to eat the game! And of course, croquettes actually look like little balls, so throughout the entire meal, he kept pretending that he was hitting them through croquet hoops.

If you aren’t familiar with croquettes, the name comes from the French, but they’re simply chopped up meat or chicken or cheese or vegetables or fish or potato or rice or quinoa or beans or combinations of all these, rolled in breadcrumbs or seeds or nuts and then cooked. For me, croquettes are a lovely way to use up leftovers. They’re versatile, not only in what you can put into them, but the way you can make, cook, and serve them. Plus if you serve them for company, the French name makes them think you’ve done something special. *grin*

Croquettes are quite easy to make, especially if you’re beginning with leftovers. The most common recipes you’ll find online are for ones made with mashed potatoes, either alone or in combination with meat, chicken, cheese, or vegetables. You’ll usually find, too, that they’re fried in some way, whether deep-fried or pan-fried, but they can be just as good baked. Below I’ll give you some tips for how to go about making your own.

The Main Ingredients: What’s important to know about croquettes is that no matter what you use, smaller is better. You don’t want large chunks in your croquettes. Because you’ll be rolling the mixture into balls, the smaller the pieces of meat or vegetables, the easier it will be for them to adhere to one another. I use my food processor to zoop at least one of the ingredients into almost a paste – potatoes, butternut squash, chicken, fish, rice, quinoa, beans, etc… all work well. Then I process the rest of the ingredients into tiny pieces which will mix well into the more paste-like ingredient. The reason I made croquettes last week was because I had some leftover chicken breasts which weren’t enough to serve as another meal for the whole family, so I processed them into a paste and added finely chopped cooked zucchini, mushrooms, and broccoli (also leftovers).

The Seasonings: You can season croquettes however you like. Salt and pepper, of course, but herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, chervil, sage, mint, dill, tarragon, marjoram, etc…) and spices (allspice, cayenne, cardamom, coriander, tumeric, cumin, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, cloves, mustard, onion, saffron, etc…) of your choosing are great, too. If you are going to eat the croquettes by themselves, you should season more heavily. If you are going to serve them with a sauce, then the croquettes can be more plain because the sauce will give them flavor.

The Binder: It’s important that your ingredients hold together to keep their shape. If you do as I do and puree one of the ingredients into a paste, then the rest of your ingredients will stick to that. It’s one of the reasons why so many croquette recipes are made with potatoes. Potatoes are naturally glutinous. If you want all your ingredients to be small, solid pieces, though, then you’ll need something to hold them together. Most anything works. Some recipes use eggs. Others call for mayonnaise or sour cream or yogurt. Many just moisten the ingredients with a little bit of liquid like chicken or vegetable broth or milk and add some flour or bread crumbs to give the vegetables or meat something to adhere to. Whatever you choose to do is fine. What’s important is that your ingredients can be shaped into balls, so if they can’t and won’t stick together, try something different.

The Shaping: Whatever ingredients you use and however you choose to bind the croquettes, I recommend that you chill the mixture before you shape the croquettes. Unless your ingredients are super sticky, chilling the mixture will help them to adhere to another better. I use a quarter cup measuring cup to form my croquettes but you can certainly make them smaller or larger. Whatever size you make, though, having them be uniform will allow them to cook evenly if you bake them or help you to time them consistently if you’re frying them.

The Coating: After you’ve shaped your main croquette ingredients into balls, you need to coat them with something. Usually they are coated in bread crumbs. I like to make my own with gluten free bread, but you can use store bought bread crumbs. What’s important is that your crumbs be very fine. Texture is very important to the taste of the croquettes. If you opt to use something other than bread crumbs, there are many options: cracker crumbs, finely ground nuts or seeds, flour, etc… Once you decide on your coating, you can decide how you want to adhere the bread crumbs (or other choice) to the croquette balls. You can roll the balls in beaten eggs, in milk, in broth, in mayonnaise, in just about anything which will help the bread crumbs stick to the croquettes. I find that eggs make for a crispier croquette, mayonnaise (or something similar like sour cream or yogurt) for a moister croquette, and milk and broth for softer croquettes, so you can choose.

The Cooking: If you want to deep fry them, it’s best to make sure you have enough oil to completely cover the croquettes. You also want to heat your oil as hot as you can. I have a deep fryer which heats to 374 degrees but if you heat oil in a pan stove-top, you can usually get the oil to about 350 degrees. The hotter your oil, the more quickly the croquettes will cook and the less oil they will absorb. Since your ingredients in the croquettes are already cooked, all you’re doing is making the croquette warm and crispy, so usually just two to three minutes is all they need to cook.

If you want to pan fry the croquettes, you simply need enough oil to brown all the sides of the croquettes. Having your skillet on medium high is good. Simply place the croquettes in the skillet and allow them to brown on one side before turning them over to brown on the other. When making the croquettes in a skillet, they usually take about four to five minutes per side.

My preferred method for making croquettes is to actually bake them because they’re healthier that way. I line a pan with aluminum foil which I’ve crinkled and very lightly grease the foil with olive oil. I place the croquettes on the foil and then lightly brush them with olive oil. I preheat my oven to 450 degrees and bake the croquettes for about 20 minutes, turning them halfway through.

The Sauces: Croquette sauces are as varied as the ways you can make the croquettes. You can dip them into a barbecue sauce, a cheese sauce, a tomato sauce, a lemon sauce, a mustard sauce, a garlic sauce, an avocado sauce, a dill sauce – if you can imagine it, you can make it. What’s important is to think about the ingredients you used in the croquettes and to match a flavor which would complement the croquettes. So, for example, if you used ham and potatoes, maybe a mustard sauce. If you made fish croquettes, maybe a lemon-dill sauce. What’s fun is if you make croquettes and serve them with a couple of different sauces for the family to try.

 

 

The Coating:

The Cooking:

Cooking Techniques: Stir Fry

“It was magnificent!”

Our family had a recent opportunity to attend a concert my oldest was performing in which was her women’s Glee club singing with Cornell’s men’s Glee club. Over 120 voices combined in four part harmony to create a most wonderful listening experience. What was amazing was listening to the individual voices even as their voices melded to become one united sound.

I thought about this when I received an email asking about how to make a good stir fry. Stir fry is food’s equivalent to a choir. Separate types of food becoming one dish where the tastes of the individual food remains even as their flavors meld to create a delicious stir fry.

Too often, though, people think of stir fry as something difficult. “Well, I don’t have a wok,” some say. “It’s too much chopping,” others say. I’ve also heard, “I never have the proper ingredients.” The fact, though, is that stir fry can be easy, quick, and done without a wok. It’s a great way to use up leftovers or to make when you only have a little bit of a variety of food items available. It’s also versatile and can be made any number of one thousand and one ways, not to mention stir fry is very accommodating for people with food allergies.

The Pan: The reason people like woks is that their curved shape allows you to cook at different temperatures at the same time. The bottom, which is closest to the heat is hotter and the temperature gets increasing cooler as you get to the top. This means you can move cooked foods toward the top and add newer food to the bottom to begin cooking on the hottest part, and then you simply mix everything together in the end. The shape of a wok also allows you to cook in different ways. The food that hits the hot bottom sears which traps flavor into the veggies or protein. When the sauce is added, though, moisture rises in the concave center of the convex wok, allowing the foods near the middle to top of the pan to be braised, which softens the food without making it mushy. If you don’t have a wok, though, you can still make a good stir fry. The key is simply to use a skillet which is just slightly larger than your burner and which has at least 2 in sides, which most of the larger skillets have these days. The center closer to the burner will get hotter than the edges of the skillet which allows you to move food to cooler sections of the pan, and the higher sides will allow you to braise. If you don’t have a large skillet with 2 in sides, you can also simply cook in smaller batches, cooking the veggies and protein separately, then mixing the two, and thickening the sauce separately and adding it to the mixed vegetables and protein. Doing everything separately doesn’t add time, it only adds another dish, and if you use the dish you’ll ultimately be serving the food in, then it won’t even do that!

The Veggies: All good stir fry dishes have an assortment of vegetables. Varying what goes into the dish can make for a colorful presentation as well as provide a variety of nutrients, textures, and flavors. People tend to get hung up on what they see as a “traditional” stir fry with bamboo shoots and baby corn and water chestnuts, but virtually any vegetable can go into a stir fry, so whatever you may have on hand works: broccoli, green beans, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, spinach, sweet potato, zucchini, squash, bean sprouts,leeks, asparagus, beets, radishes, mushrooms, onions, eggplant, and of course, baby corn, water chestnuts and bamboos as well. What’s key is cooking your vegetables uniformly. This means chopping vegetables of similar texture into the same size. It may also mean that you start vegetables which may take longer to soften like carrots and sweet potato first and adding greens like spinach or kale at the end. What’s nice about stir fry is that your goal isn’t to cook the vegetables for a long time; it’s to cook them just long enough for their colors to become bright and deep. You want the veggies to be still have some of their crunch and crispy-ness, not for them to be mush. For folks who don’t want to do any chopping or prep at all, nowadays you can buy your vegetables pre-chopped in the vegetable section. You can also used frozen chopped veggies, which is what I tend to do because then I always have veggies on hand.

The Protein: A stir fry doesn’t need to have protein but if you’d like to add protein, just about any type can go into a stir fry. Beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, scallops, tofu, beans. As with the vegetables you want the protein to be able to cook quickly and uniformly, so make sure all pieces are similar size. Cutting the protein into smaller pieces allows you to use less, increases it’s ability to blend in with the vegetables, and spreads its flavor. Most recipes will tell you to sear the meats like beef, chicken and pork first and then to move them to the cooler section of the wok or skillet while you cook the vegetables and then to mix the two together, adding the sauce. This allows the meats to begin cooking their cooking process with the searing but then finishes the cooking with the braising which keeps the meat from becoming tough and dry. When using protein like tofu or softened beans or seafood, though, it’s often better to cook those at the last minute, just before you add the sauce because they usually only need a couple of minutes to cook, and overcooking them will make them tough or fall apart. For folks worried about the prep and chopping for these, you can find pre-sliced tofu and meats at the grocery store. For seafood such as scallops, I use the frozen variety; I simply thaw them in cold water for about 15 minutes and throw them in. You can also simply used leftovers from previous meals which you throw in at the last minute just to rewarm.

The Sauce: A good stir fry will have some flavor added more than just your veggies and protein. What you do can vary, though. If you don’t want a sauce, you can simply use herbs and spices. Stores carry premixed blends for specifically adding to stir fry. You can also experiment with herbs and spices to see what you like. For me fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions are my preferred flavors. If using dried herbs and spices, you’ll want to add them to the veggies and to the protein as you begin cooking them so the flavor have time to meld. If using fresh, add them at the end. If you opt to make a sauce, the key thing to know is that you need a thickener for your sauce. For stir fry usually cornstarch is the thickener of choice but you can also use tapioca starch or arrowroot or any type of flour. You want to whisk the thickener in with your liquid before adding the sauce to the pan to thicken. A good rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of cornstarch, tapioca starch, arrowroot, or flour is needed for every cup of liquid. When cooking the sauce, you’ll want to continually stir the sauce whether you’re cooking the sauce separately or whether you’ve added it to the pan with the vegetables and protein. If you add it the pan with food in the pan, simply move the veggies and protein to the edges of the skillet or up the sides of the wok, so you can thicken the sauce in the middle of the pan. Once thickened, combine the sauce with the veggies and protein. As for ingredients in a stir fry sauce, that all depends on your tastes. For the liquid part you can use soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, broth such as chicken, beef, or vegetable, red or white wine, sherry, etc…, whatever your tastes prefer. To add another dimension of flavor to whatever liquid you choose, you can add different flavored vinegars like apple cider, rice, or red wine, juices like lemon or lime or pineapple, oils like sesame or peanut, etc…. You can also add herbs and spices like garlic, scallions, ginger, shallots, lemongrass, etc…. To make the sauce, simply mix all your chosen ingredients in the ratio that tastes the best to you and which makes one cup’s worth, add your thickener, mix well, and cook over heat, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens to a consistency where it will cling to the veggies and protein in your stir fry. If you find that for some reason you need more thickener, simply mix more of your thickener with the equivalent amount of water and add it to the sauce (so, one teaspoon of cornstarch with one teaspoon of water).

The Sides: Stir fry can be eaten alone or atop something else. Good options if you want to eat them with something else are rice (brown, white, wild, jasmine, etc…), quinoa, barley, noodles such as udon, soba, lo mein or rice noodles, strips of spaghetti squash or zucchini ribbons or chopped cabbage, fresh greens like spinach, kale, arugula or swiss chard, etc…. Use your imagination and be creative.

 

 

Cooking Techniques: Leftover Makeovers

website leftovers

There are risks, and then there are risks.

I recently read an article about people who like to ski on mountains with risks of avalanches. The article detailed the number of deaths from such risky skiing but then went on to talk about the numerous devices now available to skiers in the event of an avalanche. I couldn’t help but wonder about the type of people who would willingly ski on a mountain that requires you to carry a tracker in your pack in case someone needs to locate you underneath a mound of snow; to carry special poles which allow you to dig in case a friend is trapped underneath snow; and to strap an inflatable device to your backside with the hopes that in the event of an avalanche, you might be able to “ride” the avalanche out instead of being killed by it.

It occurred to me, though, that several friends have made similar comments about me with respect to my cooking. They have wondered aloud to me about what type of person willingly makes recipes up on the spur of the moment for company, using whatever leftovers she has in her fridge and not knowing whether the food will actually be edible or not. For some of them, that is risky behavior they are not inclined to follow.  When a friend asked such a question of me the other day, I knew it would have to be a topic for our series on cooking techniques.

The fact is that turning leftovers into a scrumptious meal for company or the family is not risky behavior. It’s being creative, and being creative is easy if you know where and how to begin.

Techniques for utilizing leftovers:

1. Make soup: Meat, beans, vegetables, fish, pasta, rice, potatoes, anything actually, can be turned into a good soup. If you have leftover vegetables, puree them with garlic, onions, black pepper, and herbs of your choosing, and add a fat free, no salt broth of your choosing to the consistency you like. Warm, and serve with assorted garnishes of choice like shredded low fat cheese or crushed croutons or chopped chives or sliced turkey bacon. Your guests will never know you were using leftovers.

If you have a little of this and a little of that leftover from a variety of meals, chop everything into bite size pieces and throw it all into a slow cooker. Don’t worry that you’re mixing a Mexican dish with an Italian one. Add a can of no salt, no sugar diced tomatoes and broth of your choosing with dried herbs and black pepper, and let it cook all day. You’ll be surprised at how tasty the soup is. If you don’t have quite enough leftovers, you can always add some thawed, frozen vegetables or a can of no salt, no sugar beans. Your soup will be a minestrone of sorts which your guests will thoroughly enjoy.

2. Make egg dishes: If you have a small amount of leftovers, you can chop your leftovers, place them into a greased pan, mix eggs with some “milk”, herbs, onions, and black pepper, pour over the chopped leftovers, and bake for a straightforward egg bake. For an egg bake, your eggs to leftover ratio is such that you have more eggs than leftovers.

If you have a large amount of leftovers, you can make a timbale or souffle. A timbale is similar to an egg bake because you use beaten eggs and milk, but your ratio of eggs to leftovers is such that you have more leftovers than egg mixture. Instead of pouring the mixture over your leftovers, you want to puree the leftovers and mix your egg mixture into your leftovers before spreading the mixture into a greased pan.

For a souffle, you separate the eggs, mixing the egg yolks into the pureed leftovers.  You then whip the egg whites until they are stiff and gently fold them into the leftovers before putting them in a pan to cook. I’ll be doing a post on souffles soon since people seem to think they’re difficult when they’re really not, and they’re wonderful to serve for company.

3.  Make enchiladas: Just about any type of meat, bean, fish, quinoa, or vegetable can become a filling for enchiladas. Simply finely chop your leftovers, add cumin and cilantro and salsa, add your type of “cheese” and scoop the mixture into your favorite wrap, whether it’s a corn, whole wheat, gluten free spinach or other type of tortilla. I make an enchilada sauce by combining tomato soup, salsa, garlic and cumin which I pour over the top of the enchiladas and then cover with “cheese”. One of my kids favorites is when I use leftover quinoa mixed with leftover black beans and vegetables.

4.  Make pasta salad: Any leftover meats, beans and vegetables go well with pasta. Just decide whether you want a cold salad or a warm one. If going with cold, make a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, onions, black pepper, and ground mustard where the lemon juice is half your amount of olive oil and the rest is to your taste preference. Mix your leftover with your pasta of choice and blend well with the marinade. The salad should be in the fridge for at least an hour or two for the flavors to meld, but then let it sit for 30 minutes to come to room temperature for serving.

If making a hot pasta salad, decide on the type of sauce you’d like. A white sauce? A tomato sauce? A pesto sauce? A cheesy sauce? It depends on the type of leftovers you have. If it’s just vegetables leftover, any type will go well. Anything with ground meat or beef or pasta tends to go well with a tomato sauce. Chicken and turkey or ham goes well with a white or cheese sauce. Make your chosen sauce, mix your leftovers with your pasta and the sauce and pop the entree into the oven to warm, usually about thirty minutes.

5.  Make rice dishes: Leftover meat, vegetables, fish and beans are great with rice. If you have meat like sausage, chicken, seafood and vegetables leftover, make a jambalaya or paella.  Both are simply rice, broth, tomatoes and spices mixed with meats, seafood and vegetables, so they’re a great way to utilize leftovers.

You can also make a stir fried rice. Take whatever leftovers you have, chop them into bite size pieces, and stir fry them in a little sesame oil just until warm. Add them to cooked rice and stir fry a little more with garlic, soy sauce to taste and onions.

Or you can make a rice casserole. Two types I like to make are a rice parmagiana where I mix the leftover meats and vegetables with rice and beaten eggs and layer the rice mixture alternately with slices of tomatoes and mozzarella “cheese” and bake in a greased pan until golden brown and crispy around the edges, about thirty minutes.

The other way is to make a nice “cheesy” white sauce or a curried white sauce which I mix into rice and the leftover meat or seafood and vegetables and bake in the oven until warm. The curried rice dish is always especially well-liked.

The final way to utilize leftover rice and meat or seafood and vegetables is to make rice muffins. Mix everything up with herbs and black pepper. Beat some eggs and mix them into the rice and leftover mixture, and evenly distribute them among greased muffin tins.  Bake until warm and browned.

6. Make pies: Pot pies and shepherd’s pies are great ways to revamp leftovers. Chop leftover meats and vegetables into bite size pieces. For a pot pie, heat two tbsp of olive oil and stir in 1/4 cup of chosen flour.  Slowly add 2 cups of a chosen broth, and stir until the broth thickens. Add herbs and black pepper and pour over the leftover meat and vegetables. Spread into a pan and top with a biscuit or crust recipe of your choosing. and bake until the biscuits or crust are golden and the pot pie is bubbly.

For a shepherd’s pie, chop the leftovers into bite size pieces and mix them with your favorite tomato soup. Spread into a greased pan and top with mashed potatoes (shepherd’s pie is great to make when you already have leftover mashed potatoes) and a layer of cheddar “cheese”.  Bake until warm and bubbly.

7. Make chili: Throw all the leftover meat and vegetables and beans into a slow cooker. Add tomatoes and chili peppers or spices and garlic and onions and more beans if needed, and just let it simmer all day.

8. Stuff something: If you puree leftover meats and vegetables and beans and add “cheese” and sauteed bread crumbs of your choosing, along with herbs, garlic, and onions, you have a wonderful filling for stuffing mushrooms or eggplants or zucchinis or peppers or squash or anything else you can stuff.

9. Make “cakes”: Finely chopped leftovers mixed with bread crumbs, spices, and beat eggs can be made into seafood or meat and vegetable cakes. Let the mixture meld in the fridge for half an hour, and then form into little patties which you can bake in the oven or fry on the stove top.

10. Make mac and cheese: When all else fails, make your favorite baked macaroni and cheese but add chopped up leftover meat and vegetables before baking. It adds a little something to your mac and cheese as well as extending the amount to accommodate a lot of guests.

Luncheon Rice Dish (made with leftovers)

Ingredients:

2 tbsp olive oil

1/4 cup flour of choice

1 1/4 cup milk of choice

1/2 cup fat free reduced salt chicken broth

1/4 cup white cooking wine

1/2 to 2 tsp curry powder, depending on how much you like curry

1/2 tsp black pepper

2 1/2 cups finely chopped leftover ham, chicken and vegetables

2 to 3 cups cooked brown rice, depending on the ratio of rice to leftovers you want

Optional: cheddar “cheese” of choice

Cooking Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a casserole dish.

2. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and brown for a minute.

3. Slowly add the milk and broth. Whisk until the flour is completely mixed in, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened.

4. Add the wine, curry powder and black pepper.

5. Mix the chopped leftovers with the rice and the sauce.

6. Pour into the prepared pan and if using, top with the cheddar “cheese”. Bake for thirty minutes until the entree is warm and bubbly.