One of my current edible preoccupations is with small oblong rolls of buttery mashed potato, dipped in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, fried until golden brown texture like sun and consumed while extremely hot and crunchy. But before I ramble on – you know how I like to ramble on - about potato croquettes, maybe it’s time we caught up, or started at least.
Don’t panic! I’m not about to come over all dramatic and toe curlingly revelatory – that post will hit your desktop sometime in mid March and will be accompanied by a free pocket pack of kleenex ultrasoft tissues and a miniature bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Today I just want to let you know where I’m at, fill you in so to speak, explain my erratic presence here, the unfamiliar pictures and kitchen and reassure you that Rachel is – despite the tumbleweed around here – eating.
Since November last year, when Vincenzo and I separated, I’ve been staying on the other side of the Tevere River in a quarter called Trastevere with my friend Betta. It’s been a very strange, sad and difficult time, but I’ve had a pretty perfect place to take refuge in. Betta’s rather unusual but beautiful flat is on the first floor of an eighteenth century building opposite Villa Farnesina on the ancient and precariously cobbled Via della Lungara. As I type this, I’m watching someone – looking rather shifty it must be said – having a sneaky cigarette behind an orange tree in Villa garden. Beyond the garden, peeping above the row of impressive terraced houses on the other side of the river is the cuppola of the church on Via del Monserrato. If I were to stand on tip toes and lean right out of the front window – we’re talking extreme, quite dangerous leaning here – I think I could just about see the cuppola of San Pietro. I do hope this sounds like an advert for my friends flat because it is. Not actually the flat itself, but the magnificent room, I mean suite, next- door which Betta runs as a bed and breakfast. Cue jaunty jingle, appropriate link, end of ad.
Despite my sporadic presence on these pages, I have been cooking. It’s been strange and unfamiliar, without the stupendous Vincenzo, shopping at a new market, cooking in a new kitchen with unfamiliar surfaces, knives, pans, without my table. But I have been cooking. You know about the carbonara and amatriciana, there have also been gallons of soup, slightly obsessive quantities of roast chicken and – quite uncharacteristically – several batches of biscuits (all thanks to this terrific book by the exceptional and wonderful Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti from the American Academy ) There have also been potato croquettes.
I’d never really considered the croquette before coming to Italy. I’d eaten them, primarily in St Georges school dining room between 1984 – 1989, providence – a Findus catering sized pack, fried two hours before consumption, floppy, sporting a soggy and suspiciously orange coat which concealed a gluey, unctuous filling that inevitably resulted in mild heartburn. Similar digestive challenges were presented by the potato croquettes I insisted on buying from dodgy fish and chip establishments in London after nights at the pub. It wasn’t all croquette horror though, I vaguely recall some rather good ones in France, Lyon I think, during the infamous exchange with Carolyn when I was 14. Unfortunately, the trauma of that particular trip rendered that particular food memory, along with several others: apricot tart, Toulouse sausage, partridge cooked with cabbage and croissant au beurre from Au Levain du Marais (I know, it’s a tragedy,) redundant.
I discovered the true potential of the potato croquettes in a pizzeria in Naples when one was hurled – think low flying and extremely well judged frisbee – onto my table along with a deep-fried zucchini flower: antipasti while I waited for my pizza to emerge from the oven. I knew straight away it wasn’t your average croquette, but even so, I still wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect of a cylinder of deep-fried mashed potato however golden it looked. Then I tasted. Hot, crisp, crunch. The shell shattered giving way to an extremely soft, light, well seasoned, parmesan spiked, parsley flecked cushion of mash. I ordered another one immediately.
The croquette high was followed by various lows as I ordered and encountered much croquette disappointment – it seems many of the pizzeria in Rome, even some of the best, aren’t much more discerning than St Georges school dining room. Then, just as I was about to give up all hope I went to La Gatta mangiona in Monteverde and there it was, the second, a modest little roll, reassuringly wonky (those extremely neat ones are deeply suspicious) golden brown texture like sun. Hot, crisp, crunch on the outside, then inside a soft cushion of mash with a sliver of mozzarella hiding in the center.
A few days later, still humming and clucking about my croquette high (and pizza high for that matter, la saporita at la Gatta – buffalo mozzarella, capers and anchovies – is divine) and in possession of some left- over mash I decided to make my own wonky little croquettes. Simple to start, no parmesan, parsley or mozzarella, just the well- seasoned buttery mash shaped into dumpy little cylinders, rolled in beaten egg, coated in breadcrumbs and then fried in a couple of inches of oil until crisp.
As with most of my kitchen firsts I thought I might need a couple of attempts to make a decent croquette, but on this occasion it was a case of croquette bingo. I have subsequently made less successful batches – not enough oil, premature shaping when the mash was not cool enough, adding milk to the mash made it too soft to shape, even when cool. Now in possession of modest croquette experience, in the knowledge of both croquette success and croquette failure, may I offer you the following advice. You want to make a nice firm mash: floury potatoes mashed with butter and seasoned generously. Allow the mash to cool for at least 30 minutes. Make sure you coat the rolls carefully and generously with beaten egg and then with breadcrumbs. Fry them two or three at a time in a good two inches of oil and most important of all, if you want the crisp crunch – croquette from the French croquer means “to crunch” after all - having scooped them out of the oil, give them a them a brief drain on some kitchen towel and then eat as soon as possible.
I repeat, no faffing around now, gather guests around the stove and eat as soon as possible . Ideally with a cold beer and deep-fried zucchini flowers.
Please note my croquettes are wonky because, as everybody knows, very neat croquettes – like very neat people and houses – are very, very suspicious indeed.
- 450g /1lb potatoes
- 45g butter
- whole nutmeg
- 1 large egg
- cup of fine breadcrumbs
- vegetable or olive oil for frying (I use olive oil)
Peel and quarter the potatoes and then cover them with salted cold water in a large pot, bring to the boil and then simmer until tender which should take about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes.
While they are still warm, mash the potatoes (or pass them through a potato ricer) with the butter and then season with salt and a good grating of nutmeg. Allow the mash to cool for at least 30 minutes.
Using your hands, scoop out a small ball of mash and shape it into an oblong croquette. Repeat this until you have 12 croquettes. Lightly beat remaining egg in a shallow bowl and put bread crumbs in another shallow bowl. Dip a croquette into egg, letting excess drip off, then roll it in the bread crumbs until well coated. Sit the prepared croquettes on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet.
Heat 2 inches of oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Fry croquettes in batches, turning occasionally, until golden brown this will take 4 to 5 minutes per batch. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve immediately.
yield: approx 12 croquettes
Having mastered the basics you can now begin your variations on a potato croquette theme – hiding a sliver of mozzarella at the center of the roll, enriching the mash with grated parmesan or pecorino, lifting it with finely chopped parsley or mint, making a mash of parsnip and potato, adding some salt cod…..
Thank you so much for all your kind and supportive messages, E mails and advice over the last few weeks. A particular thank you to Vincenzo who despite everything, has kept telling me, keeps telling me, to pull my finger out and get back into the rhythm of cooking, writing, reading, to get back here. It’s good to be back.