My search for small plates, suitable for entertaining, continues with an Italian treat: arancini.
To my everlasting regret, I have barely visited Italy. In my extensive childhood travels, planes touched down there only twice. Since, in those far off days, planes needed hours to refuel and be serviced, on both occasions we were taken on bus tours of the sights – once in Capri and Naples and once in Rome. My only gustatorial recollection is that I was offered a choice of Chianti or Coke with the packed lunch and drank the latter for the very first time. Thereafter, my entire Italian experience has been through restaurants of the Italian diaspora.
As a teenager, we lived in Benghazi, Libya, which had been under Roman influence for centuries, and was an Italian colony in the 30s. We ate a lot of Italian food, I am sure. Back home in London, an Italian trattoria was a popular spot for a good and inexpensive date. My go-to dish, for entertaining large groups of friends, was spaghetti bolognaise, commonly known as ‘spag bol.’ As the world opens up again, a visit to Italy is on my bucket list.
Toronto, my home for these past many years, is one of the largest Italian cities outside Italy. It boasts a vibrant ‘Little Italy,’ where excellent Italian cuisine can be enjoyed. I absorbed a good amount of Italian culture, and a smattering of the language, when I was program director at Toronto’s first multilingual television station (now Omni) during its launch, back in the day. Italian programming made up the bulk of our daily offerings and the owner was a large Italian, who partook generously of the offerings at local ristoranti, where we dined in apparently authentic ambiences. Of course, it’s hard for me to judge their authenticity, since (see above) I’ve never eaten in the real thing.
Another curiosity of Italian restos in Toronto, is that in some the menu leads off with antipasti and in some the first offerings are called spuntini. The former are clearly appetisers, but the latter need more explanation. Spuntini literally describes snacks taken in between meals. In a resto, one could infer that this refers to small plates, which might be ordered and shared among several diners. This brings me back full circle to the theme in my last story and the desire to provide guests at home with small dishes.
In several Italian restos, I enjoy arancini as a starter. Strictly speaking, these are a Sicilian dish: the name comes from the island dialect word for an orange. Sometimes they are small, the size of a golf ball perhaps; other times they are medium, the size of a lemon; occasionally, they are huge, the size of a baseball. I have had them stuffed with many things: ragu, spicy nduja sausage, mushrooms, cheese of various sorts, even peas; and served with a variety of sauces: marinara sauce, pesto, even a crisp green salad.
I’m not entirely clear where I first tasted arancini, but I believe it was at a pub on the banks of the Thames at the western end of London. My late and very best friend Paul and I worked together at the BBC in London and stayed close until he succumbed to a variety of ailments. Throughout his last few years, he remained in unfailing good spirits, until he had enough and told them to pull the plug. When visiting him in London, he always took me to the latest and best places to eat, but occasionally I would drag him back to some of the haunts we enjoyed as young men. One such was The Dove at Hammersmith, which boasts the country’s smallest bar. Neither Paul nor I even knew what arancini were, but someone at the next table was enjoying these deep-fried, orange-coloured, rice balls, so I thought I would try them. Filled with gooey mozzarella, they were delicious. They are today’s choice for my small dishes.
Preparation starts with left-over risotto, but since I don’t have any to hand, I will make that from scratch one day, refrigerate it overnight and make up the rice balls the next day. By the way, after I had made the risotto, it was hard not to eat it all up, it was so delicious!
- 25 g dried chanterelle mushrooms (reconstituted in 1 cup lukewarm water)
- 2 cups / 0.5 L vegetable stock, warmed, plus balance of stock left over from soaking mushrooms
- 2 TBSP EVOO
- 15 g / 1 TBSP unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion, chopped finely
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- 300 g / 2 cups Arborio short-grained rice
- 150 ml / 2/3 cup white wine
- Salt and pepper
- 150 g Parmesan cheese, grated
- 1 lemon, finely zested
- 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
Preparation and cooking
- Prepare the dried mushrooms. Soak them in lukewarm vegetable stock for 1 hr. Drain through a sieve and reserve the stock. Set the reconstituted mushrooms on a kitchen paper towel to remove excess water, then chop finely.
- Warm the vegetable stock, including the mushroom juices, to just below a simmer.
- Melt the butter and heat the EVOO together in a heavy pan. Chop the peeled onion finely and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 10 mins. Add chopped garlic and fry for 2 mins, then add chopped mushrooms and fry for a further 5 mins. Deglaze the pan with white wine, making sure nothing sticks to the bottom, and reduce until almost dry, to intensify the flavours. Then add all the rice and fry until it begins to change colour.
- Keeping the pan on medium to low, pour in about 3/4 cup stock and stir in gently until it is fully absorbed. Then add another 3/4 cup and repeat until only about 1/2 cup is left. Keep this in reserve. The risotto should now be thick and creamy. Taste and chew a spoonful and if it’s still too al dente, add a little more stock and keep cooking: total about 25 to 30 mins.
- Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat.
- Stir lemon zest and chopped parsley into the rice, then add grated cheese until it is all melted. Spoon into small heated bowls and serve at once, garnished with a sprig of parsley.
NOTE: If the entire recipe is to be used for arancini, spread the risotto out in a baking pan, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
ARANCINI (Deep fried rice balls)
- 3 cups left-over risotto
- 150 g Mozzarella ball, divided into 1/2 in chunks
- 1 cup white flour
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 L vegetable oil, sufficient for deep frying
Preparation and cooking
- Using a spatula, divide the cooled risotto into 12 portions, with each portion making a rice ball of the desired size: typically, about the size of a lemon.
- Take each ball in your hand, push a chunk of mozzarella into the middle and reshape the ball. Repeat until all the balls are prepared.
- Arrange the flour, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs in separate bowls: dip each ball into first the flour, then the eggs, then the breadcrumbs. Transfer to a rack and set aside.
- Preferably using a deep fryer, heat the vegetable oil, not too hot. TIP: Check the temperature by dropping in a small piece of bread. It should turn golden in about 45 secs. Using the frying basket, lower the rice balls into the oil in batches and cook for 8 to 10 mins, until golden brown. The cheese in the middle should be melted. Set aside each batch on a rack or paper kitchen towel to drain.
- Serve warm with fresh salsa, warm marinara (tomato) sauce or a green side salad.
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Categories: Simply food