We want arancini! You want arancini! (Even if you don’t know what it is, trust us, you do.) These amazing little golden jewels of rice-cheese-and-anything-else-you-want perfection are a family tradition and an instant soul pick-me-up. As far as we’re concerned, they’re just about as precious as “more valuable,” family heirlooms.
You might know them as Italian “rice balls,” but we’re going to stick with “arancini,” which means “little oranges,” because it just sounds delicious and it’s what we grew up calling them. Though it’s thought that arancini originated in Sicily, you can find them throughout Italy with different names and ingredients and slightly different sizes. Most often, they’re served as street food (can you imagine! a country where these are available curbside!), which should be enough to tell you that you’ve just found your new favorite on-the-go snack.
These little guys are just about as good as it gets when it comes to mouth happiness: they’re tightly crafted balls of fried, velvety rice wrapped around whatever your heart desires. (We don’t know about you, but our heart usually desires melted cheese and a perfectly fitted pair of jeans but denim isn’t delicious and ironically, the one often hinders the other.) Lou’s mom always made them the traditional way: filled with peas, mozzarella, and her incredible meat sauce. Occasionally, when time was short, she simply tucked a piece of cheese in the center where it melted into creamy oblivion. They were always flawlessly delicious, but here, we’re sharing our take on them: meatless and a bit lighter but just as packed with flavor and luxurious texture.
Lou’s family usually only broke out arancini for special occasions, but sometimes traditions are meant to be altered—especially when those traditions are rolled, stuffed, and fried until they’re wonderfully crisp on the outside and hot and gooey on the inside. Did we mention that they’re filled with the meltiest cheese? And yet, even fried and cheese-ful, arancini made our way aren’t greasy (see our Notes below) and (truly) won’t leave you feeling weighed down or like you yourself are stuffed with cheese. (Unless of course you eat four like someone did last weekend and then, well, there’s nothing to be done but nap).
This recipe is too good and too easy not to make regularly, so we make it often. Even though you might think it sounds like a great cold weather recipe, it’s actually perfect all year round—not just when we feel like hibernating with a glass of wine (hello, today), but also when we feel like taking in some sun in our backyard with a glass of wine, or enjoying an actually great weeknight meal with a glass of wine, or hanging out with friends and food with glass of wine, or, you know, breathing. You can absolutely change what you fill them with depending on the season, too. Here, we used peas, scallions, and mint (and in some, a little lemon zest) along with our mozzarella because: spring! We’re willing it to arrive via culinary magic. Also on our current short list of upcoming editions: chard and currants or raisins, broccoli rabe pesto and pecorino, pancetta and chilis and mozzarella.
Clearly, if you ask us when you should ideally eat arancini, we’re going to say: always. But to be more specific, they’re the quintessential, all-encompassing small-plate dish, appetizer, or side.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about taking something as simple as rice and turning it into something spectacular. Don’t be intimidated by the rolling and the stuffing. Arancini really are easy to prepare. (By now you should know that for us, very special recipes excepted, this is pretty much a necessity). Enlist someone you love—or at least love spending time with—to help. It’s so much fun to make these with another person or two. We often make them in tandem—one of us flouring and bread crumb coating, the other on egg white dipping duty. But if you’re flying solo, a tip: you might want to consider keeping one hand for dry ingredients and the other for wet so you don’t make a gloppy mess of your fingers.
Another tip? You can absolutely make these up to the point of frying the night before or earlier in the day. Just cover loosely and refrigerate until you’re ready to fry.
So, now we’re going to leave you to get started on the necessary mouth stretches. Once you get cooking, you’re going to want to get two or three in your mouth at once before everyone else figures out what the heck is going on. (Warning: Do not attempt without a spotter.) You’ll know why when you see the looks that go around the table when there’s only one left on the plate—the last arancini exists outside the bounds of loyalty and love. But if you’re in our house, maybe just maybe, there’s one extra hidden in the back of the fridge somewhere…if you can find it.
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Arancini with Peas, Scallions, and Mint
Makes about 15
The secret to ending up with lighter, non-greasy foods when frying is three-fold. One, always use an oil that is made for high-heat. No matter how much we love olive oil, we’re not going to use it to deep fry. Two, keep the oil temperature constant. Here, the magic number is 350°F. Fry only a few at a time to ensure that the oil temperature doesn’t dip. Three, when the food comes out of the oil, set it on paper towels to blot up any excess oil.
If you like, you can add the zest of one lemon to the rice after it’s cooked for a little extra brightness.
We also added a pinch of saffron to our rice before cooking—not at all necessary, but your rice will have a gorgeous golden color and just a hint of earthy flavor if you add it.
A saucepan deep enough for about 5 inches of oil
A paper towel-lined sheet pan or large plate
A candy/oil thermometer to attach to the side of your pot (or one that you’ll dip in between batches) so you can make sure the oil is at the right temperature
– 2 cups dry rice, cooked as instructed on the bag/box (add 1/2 tsp salt to the water), and cooled until warm enough to handle
– 5 scallions, thinly sliced, ends discarded
– 2 tbs fresh mint, finely chopped
– 1 1/2 cups peas (fresh if you can get them, frozen if not—if using frozen, just let them sit at room temperature as you work your way through the recipe)
– 4 eggs at room temperature, whites and yolks separated
– 1 stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
– 3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
– 1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
– 1 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/4 lbs mozzarella, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
– 1 tsp kosher salt
– 1/2 tsp black pepper
* Sautée scallions over medium heat with a tablespoon or so of olive oil until soft. Season with a generous pinch of salt. (This is the salt that will season the peas, too.) Remove pan from heat and set aside to bring back later.
* Add butter to warm rice and mix well until it melts and is thoroughly incorporated.
* Add mint and Pecorino and mix.
* Add egg yolks and mix quickly (especially if your rice is a littler warmer than warm) and well again.
* Set the pan with your scallions back over medium heat and when hot, stir in the peas. Cook only to heat peas through, stirring constantly to help this process and prevent the scallions from browning. Once everything is warmed up, put your mixture into a bowl.
* Set up an assembly line in this order:
1) Pot with rice mixture
2) Pea-scallion bowl
3) Mozzarella pieces
4) Flour in a wide and shallow bowl
5) Egg whites in another similar bowl
6) Bread crumbs mixed with 1 tsp of salt and 1/2 tsp of pepper in a third bowl
* Tightly pack palmfuls of the rice mixture into balls. Make sure to really give it a good mush (don’t obliterate it, but make it all stick solidly) or they’ll totally fall apart when you go to stuff them.
* Make an well in the middle of the ball with your thumb and pointer finger on either side of the wall so you can keep pinching it together as you make the hole. You’ll want the well to go just past center so your filling can have an even amount of rice all around.
* Add some pea and scallion mixture, keeping in mind that you’ll need room for the cheese and that if you overstuff, the rice walls won’t hold during frying (and you’ll have to add more and more rice to cover the filling when you close up the hole which can result in enormous arancini).
* Then, tuck in a piece of mozzarella.
* Mold the rice around the filling, adding a little bit more rice if you must in order to cover it all up. Again, pack the rice together so the balls are seamless and the arancini will hold as they go through the next steps and frying without filling leaking out.
* Roll the arancini in flour first, then egg whites, then bread crumbs, coating completely with each. Keep in mind that it’s a lot easier if you have one hand for dry ingredients and one for wet. (Or a different person rolling for each.) Then, set aside on a board or plate to wait for the others (or at least a few so you can get one batch going) before heading to the frying pot.
* Making sure your oil is at 350°F, add a few arancini to the pot, but be sure not to crowd or the oil will get too cool and nothing will cook properly. Fry, turning each over after a couple of minutes so that all sides of the arancini turn golden brown. Once this happens, the arancini are done.
* Remove to your paper towel-lined tray or plate and cool briefly before digging in.
©2014 Lee and Lou Cook. All rights reserved.