All over Miami, party hosts are doing the math. Long after the holiday coquito is just a memory, they’re struggling for an answer to an eternal question.
Exactly how many croquetas should we order for the party?
Because you can order a platter of 25. Or you can serve up 100. You could probably even order 200. But no matter how many you order or how much other food you’re serving, there will never be enough.
Dips will congeal and pastelitos will grow stale, but the croquetas are going to vanish.
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“For Christmas and New Year’s parties, people are ordering 500 croquetas at a time,” says Eileen Andrade, the force behind Finka and its spinoff Amelia’s 1931. “I feel there are never enough croquetas at a party. That’s impossible. And if [there are leftovers], they make the perfect morning snack.”
Andrade should know. She boasts a strong croqueta legacy: She’s the granddaughter of the founders of Islas Canarias in Kendall, a hotbed of croqueta activity. Her brother Jonathan, she says, is the “croqueta master.”
Other aspiring masters agree with her assessment: croquetas are a party necessity.
“Growing up in Miami, croquetas are part of every party you go to,” says Vicky Carballo, chef and co-owner (with Alec Fernandez) of Dos Croquetas, a Doral delivery and pick-up pop-up shop that specializes in homemade croquetas. “They’re always there, and they always fly.”
Of course they fly. The siren song of the croqueta is not hard to understand. Croquetas are salty, fried cylinders of meat, served with a sauce. And by meat, we mean ham. Chicken croquetas exist in the universe, and you will find bacalao (cod) on many menus. You can even order one with cheese and potato.
But if your friends and family throw a party, you almost always get the traditional Spanish ham version, and they are served with love.
“They’re the Cuban power bar,” says Andy Herrera of Breadman Miami in Hialeah, who estimates his bakery sells about 5,000 croquetas a week and about 8,500 during the holiday season. “They’re popular, and they’re just so good.”
Croquetas are so popular that Calle Ocho hosted its first croqueta-eating contest earlier this year. Carmen Cincotti of New Jersey ate 158 croquetas in eight minutes. Maybe don’t invite him to your next party.
Miami has also exported its love for the fried treat. At Burger Beast’s annual Croquetapalooza competition this year, Chris Cuan and Gregory Castillo from Dallas won the People’s Choice award. Their winning entry included sausage from famous barbecue spot Kreuz Market, sweet corn, brisket and pimento cheese with a hatch chili tomatillo salsa.
Naturally, they’re Miami natives.
Andrade thinks such competitions have helped drive the quest for the perfect croqueta.
“They weren’t always so popular,” she says. “The controversy of who makes the best ones put them back on the map. People go on Croqueta Crawls now. They go to 10 different Cuban restaurants to find the best.”
As for making the best croqueta, Andrade relies on a simple rule: “Just use fresh ingredients.” To that end, she and her brother have been experimenting with a kimchee croqueta and other modern versions at her restaurants.
Other enterprising chefs experiment, too. At Dos Croquetas, Carballo offers a mac-and-cheese and bacon version, the 305 (Angus beef picadillo, sweet plantains and queso blanco with guava aioli sauce) and Mexican Street Corn (roasted corn, polenta with cheese and chili bechamel sauce).
Still, Miami clamors for tradition.
“People will call and listen to the whole menu, all these interesting flavors, and then buy 30 ham croquetas,” Carballo says, laughing.
So what’s the formula for making sure your party has enough croquetas? Opinions vary. Publix, which reports that croquetas are a “South Florida staple,” recommends three party-size croquetas per person, and two per person for the larger croquetas.
Local experts are slightly more realistic about Miami’s insatiable desire for fried, salty foods. Herrera suggests four party-size croquetas per person. Andrade suggests four or five per person and two to three per person of the larger versions.
Let’s face the facts: There is no more versatile finger food.
“You can play with them,” Andrade says. “You can make them sweet or salty.”
“I think it’s one of the few foods that goes with everything,” Herrera says. “You can eat it wrapped in bread. Or eat it with rice or by itself. You can dip it in sauce or dip it in ketchup.”
Carballo believes the adoration of the croqueta taps into something more primal for Miamians.
“They’re so comforting. They remind you of your childhood,” she says. “It’s a nostalgic thing, that salty fried bite. People don’t usually fry at home. So you get that little bit of fried food. You’re at a party, you’re not thinking about a diet. You’re having fun.”
And if you’re the one throwing the party?
“You always think, ‘I should have ordered more.’ ”