Who loves Risotto? I do… What about creamy risotto that is fried until crispy and golden brown? Oh yes… And how about if we fill it with a creamy, melted hunk of cheese? OMG, I am now in heaven! That is today’s recipe, a delightful treat called arancini (ar-ahn-chee-nee). They are little balls made with cooked and cooled risotto rice which is wrapped around a piece of cheese or other filling. They are then fried and served hot so that when you bite into them, the melted cheese fills your mouth and blends with the crunchy exterior. Pick me up off the floor because I just fainted with delight!
Arancini are usually offered as a snack or appetizer, but you can also serve it as a special meal. It would be perfect as part of a multi-course dinner. In addition to the cheese, you can also stuff them with little bits of meat like prosciutto, some cooked vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, or peas, a meat ragu, or even a bit of shrimp. Just about anything you think would go well with rice makes a perfect filling.
Arancini means “little oranges” in Italian, exactly what these look like when fried to a beautiful golden color. They are often served with a quick tomato marinara sauce, which is absolutely delicious. But sometimes they are served sitting in a puddle of sauce. That drives me crazy because you work very hard to get them perfectly fried and then they get soggy from the sauce. I always put the sauce in a separate warmed dish so my guests can dip them in and enjoy the contrast of flavors and textures.
These were originally designed as a way to utilize leftover risotto, but you can also make the risotto specifically for arancini. And according to my wonderful Italian friend Anna, this is absolutely the way to go. She ate her first arancini when she was about 5 years old and her favorite is a simple risotto made with water, butter, onions, saffron, hot pepper flakes, and Parmesan cheese. She serves them with a hearty ragu sauce.
Anna is from Sicily where arancini originated in the 10th century when the Arabs controlled the island. Originally served as a rice dish enhanced with meat and vegetables and eaten with your hands, arancini evolved into rice balls served with various condiments. A couple of centuries later chefs started breading and frying them, making it possible to carry them while traveling or hunting. They may well be the predecessor of today’s street food offerings.
One of Anna’s favorite memories is when she was attending University in Catania on Sicily’s eastern coast overlooking the Ionian Sea. One day at lunchtime she went to a well-known shop called Saba on Via Etnea. Via Etnea is known for the gorgeous Baroque-style buildings and the best shopping in the area. Anna holds Saba close to her heart because her great grandfather, a pastry chef, apprenticed there!
That day there were racks of pasta di mandorla (almond paste cookies), cassata, pizzettes, and pasta reale (formed almond paste figures), piled high and tempting. But it was the trays of arancini that caught her attention. She settled down to enjoy a plate and discovered that they were filled with a rich and satisfying veal stew with chunks of meat. She still believes these were the best arancini she has ever had. I can just imagine her sitting in the sun, her golden hair gleaming, savoring every bite of the arancini while people wandered by, enjoying the beautiful day.
I think we should make these wonderful bites of rice, put on Italian opera, and pretend we are sitting alongside Anna on Via Etnea in Catania, Sicily! Buon Appetito!!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
The next time you are making risotto for dinner, double the recipe and refrigerate half to use for arancini the next day or the day after. If the risotto is already made, these are a very quick supper served with a simple salad!
Kitchen Skill: Saffron
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice and permeates food with a delightful aroma and flavor. It is the dried stigmas of the crocus flower and has been used for over 4000 years since the 7th century BC. In addition to cooking, it is used in the treatment of many illnesses and has long been utilized as a coloring agent for artists. It imparts a luminous yellow-orange color to foods and is probably best known in this country as the primary flavoring in paella.
Each flower produces only three red stigmas and 1 ounce of saffron consists of approximately 14,000 threads. The redder the saffron the higher the quality. The tips of the threads should be slightly lighter orange-red color. Cheaper versions are often tinted red and will be a single, solid color.
To get the most from saffron, it should be steeped in a liquid, most often hot water, so its flavor and color is more evenly distributed. Make sure that you let it steep for at least 2 hours and up to 12 hours to be certain that you get the maximum amount of flavor.
- Pinch of saffron in 5 tsp of hot water
- 1/4 cup olive oil or canola oil
- 1 medium onion, finely minced
- 1 shallot, finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
- 3 cups Arborio rice
- 2 cups dry vermouth or white wine
- 9 cups of water, chicken or vegetable stock, kept simmering on the stove
- 4 tbsp chopped fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, rosemary, or parsley
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
- 3 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- Kosher salt and freshly ground white or black pepper
- 12 to 14 oz mild cheese such as Monterey Jack, mozzarella, or muenster
- Optional Fillings (you can add one or more of these if you like)
- 2 cups finely chopped spinach
- 1/2 lb thinly sliced spicy capicola, coppa, prosciutto, or soppressata, each piece folded into a small square
- 1/2 lb mushrooms, cleaned, finely chopped, and sauteed
- 3/4 lb tiny cooked bay shrimp, chopped
- 2 cup cooked peas
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 4 eggs, lightly beaten
- 4 cups seasoned breadcrumbs or panko
- Vegetable or canola oil for frying
- Marinara sauce, optional
- Pesto sauce, optional
- Make the Risotto: In a large saucepan, warm the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for about 2 minutes or until translucent. Add the shallot and cook 1 minute. Add the garlic and cook for another 30 seconds until you can smell it. Stir in the rice, making sure it is well coated with the oil. Add the wine and saffron with its steeping water, and cook, stirring, until the wine is absorbed, about 3 minutes.
- Stir in 1/2 cup of the hot water or stock (a ladle works perfectly for this) and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is completely absorbed, about 3 minutes. Continue adding liquid, 1/2 cup at a time and stirring constantly until each addition is absorbed before adding more. The stirring helps release the starch in the rice, creating a creamy sauce. About halfway through add the herbs.
- The rice is done when it is tender but still is a little firm when you bite it, a little harder than al dente. You may not use all of the liquid. Remove it from the heat and stir in the butter and 2 cups of the Parmesan, making sure it is evenly distributed. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.
- Spread the risotto out on a baking sheet to cool. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. The rice must be thoroughly cold before using for the arancini. The rice will hold, covered, in the refrigerator up to 2 days.
- Make the Arancini: Remove the rice from the refrigerator and return to room temperature. With damp hands, form the rice into 1 to 2-inch diameter balls. Press two fingers into the center creating a hole. Press a piece of cheese or any of the fillings in the center and cover with the rice, adding more if needed to completely encase the filling. Set them on a parchment-lined baking sheet as you make each one. Continue until you have used all the rice. If you run out of fillings, don’t worry, they will be just as delicious without them!
- If you are making these ahead, you can freeze them at this point. Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Freeze until solid then transfer them to a resealable plastic bag for storage. They will keep in the freezer up to 1 month.
- Set up a breading station next to the baking sheet with the flour, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs in three separate containers. Working with one rice ball at a time, coat them in the flour, tapping off the excess. Set them in the egg and then roll in the breadcrumbs, coating thoroughly and pressing to adhere. Place them back on the lined baking sheet.
- Line a second baking sheet with paper towels and set next to the stove.
- In a deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat about 5 inches of oil to 350°F, using a deep-fry thermometer to monitor the temperature. Using a slotted spoon or spider, gently lower one rice ball at a time into the hot oil. Cook about 4 to 5 at a time, turning, until deep golden brown all over and crispy, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain. Sprinkle them with the remaining 1 cup of Parmesan cheese and a light sprinkling of salt if desired.
- If the rice balls are frozen, carefully cook them in the hot oil, a few at a time, for about 4 minutes or until cooked through and the cheese in the center is melted. If you like, you can also fry sage leaves to serve alongside the arancini. Remove from the oil and immediately sprinkle with a little kosher salt.
- Serve immediately.
- You can also serve a small bowl of marinara and/or pesto sauce alongside the hot arancini. You don’t want to set them in the sauce or they will become soggy.
- Yield: about 14 servings