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a plate of food on a wooden table

My mother was a wonderful cook. Her roasts sent our neighbors into fits of greener than green envy. The rich cakes were towers to the temple of frosted goodness. Ruthie’s gorgeous salads were colorful mosaic art pieces. And Mom’s crisp tender vegetables could make anyone a lover of good-for-you plants; it certainly did for my older sister and me. But there was one dish she just couldn’t quite master.

From Betty Crocker to the Joy of Cooking, the culinary bibles followed by every home chef in the 1960’s and 1970’s had one dog-eared recipe that was in every tome. Salmon croquettes were a weekly standard dish prepared in Formica-countered kitchens across the US. It was supposed to be a distant cousin of the original croqueta popular in Spain, although believed to be first created in France under the name of croquette. In my humble opinion, this American version of croquettes should never have been allowed to join our New York family- or anyone’s family for that matter.

These croquettes were a much larger version of the real thing; a clunky blob of lumpy mushiness with spikes of odorous canned salmon bound somehow together by a thick, gummy poor-man’s version of the classic French bechamel sauce. But my ever cookery curious mother was determined to serve the croquettes with aplomb as she had done with all her other successful gastronomic creations. She would try every which way to make them exciting, memorable, and heck, even edible. But to no avail. After experimenting from mid-last century to the 1980’s, the R and D department of salmon croquettes was closed forever and we never saw those misshapen masses ever again.

To this day, I blame the recipe and not my mother’s evident kitchen skills. Sometimes, ideas should just stay in the hands of the country that originated or perfected it. Crossing international waters can prove treacherous. That’s when I discovered a most faultless croqueta while vacationing in Spain many years ago. Perfect in its diminutive size, light and creamy on the inside( with no stinky salmon to be found), sublimely crunchy on the outside, I wished one of the authors of those old American cookbooks could have been my travel companion. They probably would have hung their head in gourmet shame after one bite of something so tasty that should never have been poorly replicated in America.

Fortunately, you do not have to go thousands of miles from US shores to have a proper croqueta. All you need to do is to come to the district of Little Havana and pop into the quaint Little Havana Market for an opportunity to enjoy a variety of crispy croquetas (with no salmon in sight-I promise!).

As much as the neighborhood abuelas would like to think they invented the croqueta because these little morsels are such a mainstay of Cuban culture, they simply can’t stake that claim. Lore has it that the original idea was indeed called a croquette and that it was birthed in 19th-century France as a way of using food scrapes when times were financially challenging. But other tales include that the croquette was actually elevated to king and queen status when French chef Antonin Careme prepared potato croquettes for a royal banquet ( so glad he didn’t use salmon, perhaps he would have faced the guillotine for that!). Yet other stories point to that it was the grandest chef of all, Monsieur Escoffier, who invented it and wrote down the recipe to train chefs all over the world on how to make this delicious treat.

But when croquettes traveled down to Spain, they became croquetas and instead of a potato filling, the Spanish introduced ham and cheese but mixed it with a French bechamel sauce ( prepared lighter and smoother than the American version my poor mother had to suffer through). Basically the recipe is a protein choice, stirred together with the white flour, butter and milk sauce until the mixture is thick enough to form into small, squatty logs, then it gets a shower of breadcrumbs and fried at high temperature to golden brown status.

Once you enter the very homey and inviting Little Havana Market, you’ll encounter the first shiny glass case near the cash register filled to the brim with Cuban snack foods, croquetas taking up almost the entire bottom shelf. What will it be-jamon e queso, queso, chicken, beef or perhaps spinach as your choice? The smiley and attentive staff will dote on your every need and will offer you a seat at the wooden tables that line the entryway or the more secluded dining area further into the store. As you munch on your satisfying croqueta, you will find you are not just in a place to enjoy a well-deserved snack or meal.

This long-established business is a grocery store as well! I recommend eating first ( it’s always best to shop on a full tummy to avoid impulse buying, but because this store has so many interesting products to purchase it wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world if you bought more than what you intended) then slowly peruse every aisle of this adorable place. While you will find familiar brand names, you will also discover products that are exclusive to this Cuban area and that certainly would make a unique souvenir for you or for someone back home.

Every time I’m here enjoying an array of croquetas, I can feel the presence of my mother. Although she has long departed from this world, I can’t help but think she’s smiling down so content in the thought that I could finally enjoy a croquette/ croqueta the way it was intended. And I always respond to her celestial warmth by softly muttering, “Don’t worry Mom, I still make your meatloaf”

By Robyn Webb