Memories of Maine | Chicken Croquettes
Maine never leaves you. Twenty-five years after leaving Maine certain things—the gift of the snow day, the red hot dogs, brown bread in a can, and going up to camp are still a part of my DNA. I’ve lived in California for over twenty years now as a private chef and caterer, cooking my way through the McMansions that are sprinkled like confetti over the landscape. Many of my clients have no time to cook, no time to connect, really, over food and bear witness to the miracle that is a perfectly ripened piece of fruit or a potato, newly dug with dirt still clinging to its tender skin. Too busy is a curse of modern times.
I was brought up in a very different way. My people liked to eat, and a few of them did like to cook, but we were not foodies or culinary artists. It was me who would hole up with cookbooks and imagine elaborate dinner parties, Hawaiian themed luaus, and tacos in Mexico. The birth of my foodie self-ties indirectly to my grandparents, Lydia and Joe (Memere and Pepere to those of you that are of French Canadian descent.) and neither one of them cooked. They were the salt of the earth. Kind, generous, patient and loving. Lydia and Joe were married for 63 years and lived in Winslow the duration, venturing out in a 100 miles in any given direction but no further. Joe worked at Scott paper mill and Lydia’s claim to fame was being the original Marden’s old lady. Lydia was most emphatically not a cook. I would see her in the kitchen three times a year. Thanksgiving, to put the turkey in the oven, Tortiere Pie on Christmas Eve, and ham on Easter Sunday.
Memere and Pepere ate out 3 times a day, at local diners and family-owned restaurants. Early on they taught me the value of driving around for a good meal and knowing who had the best-fried clams or clam chowder. Through them, long before the food network existed, I knew that Perry’s Nut House had the best and most decadent penuche fudge. I would eat slowly with my eyes closed letting its velvety sweetness melt on my tongue. Toby’s in Saco and Red’s Eats in Wiscasset had the best batter-fried clams and clear meat lobster rolls. Flo’s in York had the best hotdogs, with mayo, flo sauce, and celery salt no less.
We frequented many a small diner—Pepere would take me out for lunch on Saturdays just the two of us and it was at one of them I learned about the joys of bread pudding in parfait glasses with softly whipped cream and coconut cream pie (still one of my all-time favorite pies). Breakfast on weekends for many years meant cinnamon rolls from the Red Hearth restaurant in Waterville split in half and fried in butter before we dropped Memere off at work. A cinnamon roll fried in butter remains one of my guilty pleasures and one that I have passed onto my children.
Beyond going out, the food that we shared was simple and seasonal. We stopped at roadside stands for fresh corn and tiny pickling cucumbers (Memere’s favorite) on the way to garage sales and antique shows. We would pick wild raspberries by the roadside and blackberries too! They always had a secret spot. Maine shrimp season was eagerly anticipated and we would get tiny shrimp in 5 and 10-pound batches. Standing next to my Pepere I would help him pinch the heads of the shrimp and prepare some to cook and some to freeze. Wearing a flannel shirt and suspenders he would hum slightly as we worked. He taught me to cook them in heavily salted water, like seawater. Summertime brought briny soft shell clams and hardshell lobster with sweet flesh at Young’s lobster pound in Belfast. When ice fishing season hit we would get smelts from friends who went smelting, gut them, dip them in seasoned flour and slide them into a cast-iron skillet burbling with melted butter until they were golden brown and crunchy on the edges. When the snow melted in the spring we would tap maple trees and tie empty milk jugs around the tap to collect the sap. We would boil the sap into rich, dark maple syrup. Some would go for pancakes and some would get further treatment and become maple taffy, swirled over crushed ice or fresh snow from that last late spring snowfall.
Mary’s restaurant in South China was a favorite place to eat on Friday night. We would pile in the car and pick up Memere from Mardens and head out. My mom and I would frequently get the chicken croquettes, which is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods. Is it dated? Yes. Is it delicious, decadent and thrifty too? All of the above. It is simple and very evocative of New England history.
Essentially it is chicken (or turkey or ham, etc.) finely minced, bound with a thick gravy (veloute sauce in case you are interested) chilled, shaped into ovals, rolled in flour, egg washed, rolled in fresh breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Although I make it with chicken it really is the ultimate post-Thanksgiving recipe. I have recreated the recipe and embellished it slightly, but every time I taste it I am transported to my childhood where the questions were simple and love stretched around me like an August sunset over a lake in Maine.
4 Tbsp Butter
6 Tbsp flour
¼ c. finely minced shallot
2 tsp finely chopped garlic
1 cup chicken stock
2 cups finely chopped roast chicken, leftover rotisserie chicken is perfect here
3 Tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon or a pinch of dried
Salt and Pepper to taste.
½ cup flour for dredging
1 egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp water
1 ½ cup panko style breadcrumbs
1 quart of oil for deep frying
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Add the onions and gently saute until they are translucent. Add the garlic and continue to cook for 30 seconds or so, until it is aromatic. Add the flour to the butter mixture and whisk to combine. Add the chicken stock in 2 or 3 stages, whisking well after each addition to ensure there are no lumps. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the chopped chicken and herbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the chicken mixture to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge to chill for an hour.
Shape the chilled chicken mixture into 4 parts. They should look like slightly flattened logs. Take 3 small bowls out. One for flour, one for egg wash and one for panko. Roll the croquettes one at a time into the flour, then egg, then panko, making sure to coat them evenly at each step. Chill the croquettes in the fridge for an hour or overnight.
Heat the oil in a wide, deep, saucepan until it registers 355F on an instant thermometer. Slide the croquettes into the oil 2 at a time. Allow to cook until nicely browned, about two minutes per side. Remove the croquettes from the oil and drain on paper towels or on a rack. Croquettes are most delicious when eaten immediately but you may also keep them warm in a 325F oven until ready to serve.