It seems a long time ago, but just six weeks ago, my husband and I were in Madrid after our annual trip to France. Learning of our plans to visit Madrid, a friend asked, and I quote, “why the hell would you go to Madrid when you can go to Barcelona?” And it’s true – Madrid and Barcelona are as different as Washington and Miami. Whereas Barcelona transcends both ancient and modern times (visit both the Barri Gòtic and the Eixample and you’ll see what I mean), Madrid, which first came into its own in the 16th century when the Spanish capital moved there from Toledo, maintains a baroque and Neoclassical feel that anchors the city in Spain’s imperial past. Similar distinctions exist between the cuisines of the two cities. Not that you can’t find a good asador in Barcelona or suitably avant-garde bistronomia in Madrid, but the geography and history of both cities have set them on different culinary paths. If we’re going to overgeneralize, Barcelona is fish and rice and adventurous modern gastronomy; Madrid is meat and beans and a conservative, classic style. And that makes sense: it’s in the middle of the country, not far from the shore, nestled beside Spain’s finest pork-producing regions, Castile y León and Extremadura. Speaking of pork, the first time I visited Madrid, in 1993, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of the Museo del Jamón, which is exactly what the name suggests – a shop dedicated to Spain’s finest pork product, jamón. A museum dedicated to ham? Why was I not informed?
Museo del Jamón, as I discovered, occupies that gray area between food store and restaurant. It’s pretty touristy, lowbrow, and mostly located near attractions like the Prado or the Puerta del Sol. I don’t care about that – the ham is delicious and the beer is cold, and even after eighteen years, I’ve never escaped a visit to Madrid without a visit to el museo. Anyway, my husband had never been to Madrid and, after my incessant chatter about ibérico pigs and all that, suggested it for lunch on the way to a Teotihuacan exhibit at the Fundación la Caixa. We made for the plato combinado, an inexpensive but filling lunch offering, and, for good measure, a ración of jamón ibérico de bellota. While we ate, the place filled up with locals, almost all men, in for a quick afternoon beer and bocadillo.
Spanish cured ham comes in several forms, in order of quality. First, there’s jamón serrano, your basic dry cured ham. The term “serrano” doesn’t mean anything special in this context – it just connotes a conventional dry-cured ham from the hind legs of the white Landrace pig. Jamón serrano reminds me of conventional prosciutto. Then there’s jamón ibérico, which connotes only dry-cured hams made from the black pata negra pig, fed at least partly on acorns. Although most ibérico comes from farm-raised pigs, fattened on acorns only at the end, the fabled ibérico de bellota comes from pata negra that are allowed to forage among the acorn forests of Extremadura. It tastes like nuts, fatty and sweet, and has a dense, meaty quality rather than the saltier taste and flimsy texture of serrano. Behold the difference:
I was lucky enough to try some fresh cuts of the ibérico de bellota pig earlier this summer at the Fancy Food Show. They were as sweet and rich as the cured ham. Recently, I picked up some of the bellota cheeks, belly, and a shoulder cut, so keep your eye out for future postings. Jamón is far easier to come by, though, so pick up some ibérico de bellota and enjoy with a glass of chilled sherry. Or try making your own plato combinado sometime. It’s easy – french fries, sliced jamón, fried egg, and croquetas.
Croquetas de jamón
I make these croquetas with jamón serrano. I suppose you could make them with ibérico, or if you were filthy rich and kind of nuts, ibérico de bellota, but the fact is that a fried bite like this croqueta isn’t suitable for the bellota – the rich béchamel swamps the delicate, sweet flavor of the acorn-fed pork and its delicious fat. Save the bellota for eating raw, sliced paper-thin, so you really can enjoy it.
I use gelatin in my croquetas so I can use less flour – the result is a lighter croqueta whose filling melts more in the mouth rather than a heavy, pasty item. It is important to chill the filling thoroughly before breading and frying. If you don’t, the filling will be fairly wet and hard to bread. In addition, I call for using stock: in Madrid, the filling often includes the broth of the classic meat-and-chickpea stew called cocido madrileño. You probably don’t have that to hand, but any good meat stock is fine.
You can scoop them using a tiny ice cream scoop or a spoon (the scoop releases the filling without dirtying your hands). If you like, leave them round (as in this recipe). If you prefer the traditional oblong shape, roll them slightly to flatten once you’ve coated them in flour during the dredging process. I’ve depicted the oblong shapes in the eggplant recipe below.
6 tbsp (3 oz) unsalted butter
6 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c whole milk
1/2 c ham or pork stock, or any other meat stock
3 sheets gelatin
4 oz jamón serrano, minced
grapeseed or vegetable oil
standard breading station: flour, beaten egg with a little water, breadcrumbs or panko
Start a day in advance: it seems fussy, but it guarantees that your filling will set up. You need to let it set for at least 4 hours.
Make a moderately thick béchamel sauce: place a saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. When the butter melts and begins to bubble, add the flour, whisking well, and reduce the heat. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, for about 6 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Don’t allow the roux to color.
Add the milk slowly, whisking. Increase the heat and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Lower the heat and barely simmer for about 6 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to about 115F.
Bloom the gelatin in cool water and squeeze out the excess water. Whisk into the still-hot béchamel and incorporate well. Add the minced ham and distribute. Season to taste. Pour into a shallow pan, like a sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until solid.
Set up a standard breading station of one pan of flour, another with beaten egg (thinned slightly with water), and another of breadcrumbs or panko. Pour about 1/3″ oil in a sauté pan and place over medium high heat. Scoop the filling using a small cookie scoop (about 1 tbsp) and bread. When the oil reaches 350F/177C, fry the croquetas. Drain on paper over a rack. Serve hot.
Croquetas de berejenas “Parmigiana”
Let’s try something different for a change. Eggplant parmigiana is classically made by frying slices of breaded eggplant, and then baking the fried eggplant with mozzarella cheese, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a light tomato sauce. It’s usually pretty heavy and greasy – other than an incredible version my husband makes that skips the breading and frying step – and I can’t say I usually love it. So how about an croqueta with the flavors of eggplant parm?
Salt the eggplant to remove bitterness (I usually skip this step in favor of microwaving, but that won’t work so well for this recipe). Then roast the eggplant and purée as part of the filling. Breaded and fried, and served alongside a light marinara sauce, these are so much better than the dish that inspired them.
4 tbsp (2 oz) unsalted butter
4 tbsp plus 1 tsp all-purpose flour
1 c whole milk
4 sheets gelatin
3 oz fresh mozzarella, diced or torn into the smallest possible bits
1 1/2 c eggplant purée (below)
grapeseed or vegetable oil
standard breading station: flour plus grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (2:1), beaten egg with a little water, breadcrumbs or panko
two medium eggplants or five baby eggplants
a little milk if necessary
Halve the eggplant lengthwise, score, and season with salt. After about 30 minutes, pat dry, rinse, and pat dry again.
Place on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, and roast cut side-down until tender. Pierce the skins with a fork. Scoop the flesh from the skins and purée with a squeeze of lemon in a blender. If necessary, add a little milk to help it purée. For a really smooth texture, pass through a tamis. Set aside.
Make a stiff béchamel sauce: place a saucepan over medium heat and, when hot, add the butter. When the butter melts and begins to bubble, add the flour, whisking well, and reduce the heat. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, for about 6 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste. Don’t allow the roux to color.
Add the milk slowly, whisking. Increase the heat and continue whisking until the sauce thickens. Lower the heat and just barely simmer for about 6 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to about 115F/46C.
Bloom the gelatin in cool water and squeeze out the excess water. Whisk into the still-hot béchamel and incorporate well. Add the eggplant purée and incorporate well. The mixture should cool substantially. Add the mozzarella cheese and distribute. Pour into a shallow pan, like a sheet pan, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until solid.
Set up a standard breading station of one pan of flour 2:1 with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, another with beaten egg (thinned slightly with water), and another of breadcrumbs or panko. Pour about 1/3″ oil in a sauté pan and place over medium high heat. Scoop the filling using a small cookie scoop (about 1 tbsp) and bread. When the oil reaches 350F/177C, fry the croquetas. Drain on paper over a rack. Serve hot, garnished with minced parsley, additional grated cheese, and the tomato sauce on the side.