TS_Risotto balls

Named for the “little oranges” that they resemble, arancini originated as Sicilian street food and are found throughout Italy. (Stephen DeVries/TNS)

You will find arancini — fried risotto balls filled with cheeses, vegetables or meats — on many fancy Italian restaurant menus. But I first tasted authentic arancini at an autogrill (the Italian version of a truck stop) along the Autostrada (highway) in Italy.

These off-highway spots offer espresso, soft drinks, beer and wine accompanied by panini (sandwiches), snacks like arancini, and, of course, gasoline.

Named for the “little oranges” that they resemble, arancini originated as Sicilian street food and are found throughout Italy. In Rome, they are known as telefono, so named because the strings of melted mozzarella that ooze out when you take a bite resemble telephone lines.

The best rice for arancini is the type used to make risotto, such as arborio. Cook it very al dente so it will retain that bite after deep frying. Although many arancini recipes begin with fresh-made risotto, it’s perfectly OK to start with day-old chilled risotto.

Make sure you really squeeze the arancini together to form them as tight as possible so they will hold their shape when frying. It’s a good idea to have a bowl of cold water handy to moisten your hands to keep the rice from sticking to them. The fillings for arancini are regional and familial and vary dramatically from mushrooms or cheese to roasted eggplant or ground meat.

Arancini can be frozen for up to three months and fried directly from the freezer. Double the recipe the next time you make a batch of risotto so you have enough to make arancini the next day.

Arancini make a delicious side dish or a main course served with a salad.

Sparkling wines and fried foods are a match made in heaven. Try a Trentdoc Rotari Brut 2013 ($19) produced in the classic Champagne method in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy.

Arancini with Fresh Mozzarella and Italian Parsley

For the rice:

  • 3 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 3 large eggs, well beaten
  • 1/4 cup sweet white rice flour (Bob’s Red Mill) or fine breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup Italian parsley, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese, finely grated
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, drained and cut into 1/4-inch cubes

For deep frying:

  • 3 large eggs, well beaten
  • 2 cups fine dry Italian, panko, or gluten-free breadcrumbs
  • 4 to 5 cups vegetable oil

For the rice: Pour 5 cups water into a medium heavy-gauge saucepan or pot and stir in the rice, butter, and salt. Heat to boiling over medium heat; reduce the heat to low. Simmer briskly, uncovered and without stirring, until the rice has absorbed the water, about 30 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the eggs, rice flour, parsley, and Parmigiano.

Line a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with parchment paper. Transfer the cooked rice to the parchment-lined dish, smoothing to make it level. Bring the rice to room temperature.

(To finish the recipe the next day, cover the rice with parchment paper and the baking dish with plastic wrap; refrigerate. Bring the rice to room temperature before continuing with the recipe.)

For deep frying: Using a sharp knife dipped in cold water, score and cut the rice cake into 16 equal pieces. Place one portion of rice in your hand and shape it into a cone; fill with 3 cubes of mozzarella. Close the rice over the cheese and squeeze to shape it into a ball. Place on parchment paper. Repeat until all the arancini are formed.

Place two large bowls on a work surface. Place the eggs in one and the breadcrumbs in the other. Immerse a rice ball in the egg; move it to the bowl of breadcrumbs and dredge until well coated. Place the breaded ball on the parchment paper. Repeat until all the rice balls are breaded.

Pour the oil into a small electric fryer (amount specified by fryer model) or a heavy-gauge pot, ensuring that the oil reaches no higher than 3 inches from the top of the pot. Preheat the oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Carefully transfer 3 or 4 of the balls into the hot oil, being careful not to crowd them. Fry until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Test one to ensure doneness, adjusting frying time as needed. Proceed with the remainder.

Blot the fried arancini on paper toweling. Place on a platter and serve with your favorite tomato sauce.

Makes 16 arancini; 4 servings.

Recipe adapted from: “Risotto & Beyond” by John Coletta with Nancy Ross Ryan and Monica Kass Rogers, Rizzoli International Publishers ($37.50)

Today’s Special is a Tribune News Service column by Carole Kotkin, manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school and co-host of Food & Wine Talk on southfloridagourmet.com.

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