Croquettes are a well-known way of using up leftovers, as many leftovers can be turned into a tasty snack by breading and deep-frying them. Croquetas are very popular in Spain as tapas, and in Italy leftover risotto is turned into arancini. If you’ve ever been invited to a “borrel”, a Dutch cocktail party after work or at a ‘function’, chances are that one type of snacks that was served were “bitterballen”. The word “bitter” does not refer to the taste of the balls themselves but of the alcoholic beverages they used to be consumed with: bitter herb beverages that are now often referred to as digestifs. Nowadays, the most common drink at a borrel is beer.
A bitterbal is a small rond version of a croquette (kroket), but apart from size and shape they are the same and that is why I’m covering them together in this post. Bitterballen and kroketten are made of meat ragout that has been allowed to firm up in the refrigerator and is then breaded and deep-fried. It is invariably served with mustard. Kroketten are one of the most popular snacks to eat at lunchtime on a soft bun with a bit of mustard (“broodje kroket”).
It is quite strange that bitterballen and kroketten are only eaten in Dutch-speaking areas, since I’ve not met a single person (other than vegetarians) who did not like them and the ingredients are easily available around the world. It is quite a bit of work to make them from scratch, but especially if you live in an area where you cannot buy them deep-frozen at the supermarket, it is definitely worth it as I’m sure your guests will love them. Even in the Netherlands it is worth making them from scratch, since you can make them to your liking and get to control what goes into them.
Poor-quality bitterballen and kroketten available in the Netherlands are made from horse meat and/or “mechanically separated meat”. High-quality products contain pieces of meat rather than flakes of meat to show that ‘real’ meat was used. I prefer the flaky texture where the meat is integrated into the ragout rather than having meat in separate pieces, and I also prefer not to have parsley in mine. By making my own bitterballen or kroketten from scratch, I can get the best of both worlds: real meat and the texture that I like.
Cees Holtkamp is a famous pastry chef from Amsterdam who is retired and has publish a book with homemade versions of his famous cakes and snacks, including veal croquettes. The recipe below has been adapted from the recipe in his book “De Banketbakker”. I made many changes to the recipe though to adjust it to my personal preference. I left out the gelatin (which isn’t needed) and the parsley in the ragout (which I don’t like). I also substituted the lean veal with veal shanks for additional flavor and substituted the maggi (which I refuse to use, this is a from scratch version after all) with Japanese soy sauce. For even more flavor, I started by browning the veal shanks in clarified butter. And I made lots of other small changes.
The key to good bitterballen or kroketten are a good ragout (obviously) and the right breading. The key to a good breading that I learned from Holtkamp is to use two sizes breadcrumbs: small for the first layer and large for the outer layer. This will produce a super crunchy crust. A mixture of egg whites and flour helps to prevent the bitterballen or kroketten from leaking.
600 grams (1.3 lbs) veal shank
2 Tbsp clarified butter (or 1 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp olive oil)
1 tsp black pepper corns
1 tsp salt
650 ml (2 3/4 cups) water
1 bay leaf
few sprigs fresh parsley
few sprigs fresh thyme
80 grams (6 Tbsp) butter
100 grams (5/8 cup) all-purpose flour
50 ml (3 1/2 Tbsp) whipping cream
2 egg yolks
1 tsp Japanese soy sauce
1 tsp mustard
salt and freshly ground white pepper
freshly ground nutmeg
stale bread for making bread crumbs
5 egg whites
10 grams (1 Tbsp) all-purpose flour
3 liters (3 quarts) vegetable oil with a high smoke point for deep frying, such as peanut oil
Meanwhile, make the breadcrumbs. You absolutely need two sizes, so store-bought will probably not work. Preheat the oven to 120C/250F. Remove the crust from the bread and slice it (about 1 cm or 1/2″ thick). I used wholewheat bread since that is what I had, but white bread has a more neutral flavor. You can use fresh bread as well, but use up stale bread if you have it.
The meat is done when you can pull it apart easily with a fork. Let the meat cool to room temperature in the stock. This will allow the meat to re-absorb some of the juices that leaked into the stock. (You can make this step more quickly by putting the casserole in cold water.)
You can continue to shred the meat with a pair of works, or you can ‘pulse’ grind it in the food processor. Don’t over process since you want to have flakes that will give texture to your ragout, rather than meat paste.
It starts with making a roux, a mixture of butter and flour. Melt 80 grams butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over low heat.
Add soy sauce and mustard. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, freshly ground white pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. You could also add more soy sauce or mustard if you like. The ragout should have a full slightly peppery taste.
If you are in a hurry, you could force-cool the ragout while it is still in the pan by putting the pan into (ice) cold water and stirring the ragout.
Heat up the oil to 180C/350F. In 3 liters (3 quarts) of oil you can fry up to 6 kroketten or 20 bitterballen at the same time. The oil temperature will drop by too much if you try to fry more at once.
You can use the oil again for up to 12 times or so. Allow to cool, filter and pour back into the container using a funnel. Store the oil in an airtight container in a dark place.