I had never tasted arancini until I was in college. Vincenza, my oh-so-Italian roommate who spent weekends at home on Staten Island, returned to the dorms on Sunday evening with tens of them in tow, leftover from dinner at her grandmother's. She warmed a few up for us all and I was transfixed by the toasty, cheesy smells before I even tasted one. "What are these?" I probably wondered aloud. "They're rice balls," said Vinnie, enthusiastically as ever.
"Yes, but what are they called in Italian," I demanded, always eager to hear Vinnie pronounce things in her lovely Italian way. (Truthfully, I've been weirdly obsessed with Vinnie saying things in Italian ever since the one time we were eating toast and she said "nuh-tellll-a," like they do in this commercial. It's mesmerizing to hear for a gal from Long Island where we butcher Italian words and pronounce pasta fagioli as "pasta fa-zool.")
"Arancini," she said, in that unhurried, Italian way that makes all foods sound more delicious.
T'was the beginning of something truly special. Later on that year, I traveled to Spain and realized that croquettes of all shapes and flavors are a thing in Europe. My mind opened up to deep-frying breaded bundles beyond a T.G.I. Friday's mozzarella stick. At every tapas bar I went to, there was ham, potatoes, rice, cheese and more fried up into perfect little bombs.
So that summer, I spent a lot of time experimenting with stovetop deep-frying, including my first attempt at arancini on my own. I made a super complicated mushroom risotto to start, which was beautiful on its own and, looking back, I should've just eaten by itself. I stuffed each rice ball with mozzarella cheese and peas and we ate rice balls for days. Dan still raves about those. But to be honest, (and this is very unlike me to say) the process left me feeling pretty defeated. Not only was it incredibly laborious, but me and Dan's hipster vegan roommates at the time acted really judgey when they saw all the cheese I was bringing into their home.
The next time I made arancini, though, was lots of fun. I was visiting Vinnie at home and, as I entered her front door, fresh off the express bus, I was immediately and unexpectedly swept up into her family's rice ball assembly line. I was in charge of scooping the rice and preparing it to be stuffed. Vinnie's dad then took over, filling each portion of rice with some ragu and cheese. Then, it was passed to Vin for breading and to her mom for deep frying. As we cooked, they told me stories about Sicily, food and their families. Vinnie's mom is an incredible lady with what feels like endless interests (she cooks, paints, decorates, knits) and her dad, also with his fun projects, owns two restaurants and always has tons of stories to tell. We ended up with more rice balls than could fit on her kitchen counter and leftover cheese to snack on.
I was excited for attempt number three, when I decided to make arancini for a group of my best friends and family on my birthday (as inspired by Vinnie's favorite meal, of course!). I must say that this time around, knowing what to expect and knowing where I would make changes made all of the difference. I took cues from Vinnie's family-- incorporating a measuring cup scooper so that every ball was the same size, having every piece of the puzzle ready ahead of time, and working assembly line-style. I nixed the gorgeous, but overly-complicated-for-the-occasion risotto from attempt number 1 and went with a simpler version this time. I also made sure to keep a thermometer in my oil, so that it remained at a steady 350 degrees, and I slipped each ball, post-fry, into a not-too-hot oven just to keep them warm and un-soggy until guests arrived.
I topped with my marinara sauce and received relatively good reviews! There might be a few small changes I make next time (mostly in the rice-- I might add some more liquid, preferably white wine, as well as some grated Parmesan), but overall mission: arancini was a success! (I'll post the recipe for the arancini here and will follow up over the next couple of days with the ragu and risotto recipes, separately!)
AranciniThis recipe is enough to feed a crowd (10-12 people) on relatively large arancini. You may wish to reduce the recipe and/or make smaller balls.
Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
3 large eggs, beaten to blend
1-2 cups flour, for dredging
6 cups Risotto with Peas (use my recipe, but eliminate asparagus and mushrooms)
2 cups bread crumbs
2-3 ounces mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups ground beef, browned
1. Using a 1/2 cup dry measuring cup, scoop out a portion of risotto. Release from the cup, into your hands and press in the center, creating a well. Fill with a peice (or two!) of the mozzarella and a spoonful of the beef. Form into a tight ball around the filling. Repeat until you've used all of your rice.
2. Now that you have all of your balls, prepare your dredging station-- 1 container of flour, 1 container of beaten eggs, and one container of bread crumbs. Dredge each ball in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs and return to prepared tray. Repeat for every ball.
3. Once all of your arancini are breaded, pour enough oil in a heavy sautee pan that it will reach halfway up each arancini. Using a candy or kitchen thermometer, heat the oil over medium heat to 350 degrees F. Also heat your oven to 250 degrees F.
4. Working in batches, add the rice balls to the hot oil and cook until a golden brown crust forms, turning them as necessary. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the rice balls to paper towels to drain and then to a heated tray in your warm oven. Repeat until every arancini is fried.
5. Season with salt. Let rest 2 minutes. Serve hot.