Arancini - or arancine (little oranges) as they're more correctly called*** in Palermo vs. the rest of Sicily and of Italy - are a wonderful snack that adds even more lustre to the already famous street-food of Palermo. Once they were just a Sicilian dish, nowadays they're eaten all over Italy. A bit like lasagne, originally from Bologna, and the omni-present pesto that was invented in Genua, now on the menu of almost every Italian restaurant, especially outside of Italy.
And just as it often happens with lasagne and pesto it's very easy to find bad arancini, for example the infamous ones sold on the ferry between Calabria - mainland Italy - and Sicily: dry, mostly days-old balls of unpleasantly sticky rice that retain no trace of the wonderful fragrance and combination of crunchy outside-slightly gooey and sexy inside that make arancini THE perfect snack.
That's also because, as all fried foods, to be at their very best arancini need to be eaten just as they come out of the fryer. You can of course make them in advance and keep them warm in the oven (90-100°C) but nothing beats an arancino that JUST came out of the hot oil (180° C is a great temperature for deep-frying) and has been resting on a layer of kitchen paper only for a few seconds, the time that is necessary to remove the excess fat from its surface. This way the mozzarella inside the arancini will still be hot and make "threads" when you eat it, a highly desirable phenomenon among arancini lovers.
Their name is due both to their size (that of small oranges, for example the blood ones) and to their colour, that appealing golden-brown hue that comes with frying and with the use of saffron to flavour the rice. You can surely make arancini with boiled rice to speed up the process - and maybe recycle some left-over rice - yet I advise the risotto version in which the saffron has enough time to thoroughly penetrate the rice and infuse it with its wonderful colour and aroma. Or at least cook the rice in stock with saffron instead of water.
The classic version is prepared with a filling of minced meat in a rich tomato sauce with peas which reminds me of a thick Bolognese sauce, but for my cooking courses and workshops - and at home too - I prefer my lighter vegetarian version filled with just peas and mozzarella. Perfectly tasty, a bit more environmentally-friendly and also suitable for the non-meat eaters among us.
Just a few tips for making perfect arancini, not too dry and definitely not runny: make the risotto very compact and not all'onda (quite fluid) like you would make when serving it as is, thus letting as much stock as possibile evaporate and get absorbed by the rice. If you notice that the risotto is still too liquid add some extra grated Grana or Parmesan cheese and/or some bread crumbs to make it denser.
This recipe yields at least 10-12 arancini. The ones in the photos have been made by me when helping a friend Vincenzo in his Italian restaurant here in Amsterdam. He likes to add the peas directly to his risotto, so you see them on the outside too. :)
***The correct way to call these "little oranges" is indeed arancine, since the feminine word "arancia" indicates the fruit while its masculine version "arancio" defines the orange tree.
Arancini di riso my way (risotto balls filled with mozzarella and peas)
500 gr. Arborio rice
2 l. stock
3 + 1 medium-sized eggs
60 gr. peas (fresh or frozen)
1 mozzarella of about 125 gr.
a pinch of saffron
1 dl. dry white wine
40 gr. grated Parmesan cheese
extravergine olive oil
sunflower or peanut oil for frying
sea salt and black pepper
RISOTTO: pour some olive oil in a deep pan and fry half of the chopped onion in it until it becomes soft, almost transparent and golden.
Add the rice and let it become translucent stirring continuously.
Pour the wine in the pan and let the alcohol evaporate on a medium high flame, keeping on stirring the rice until you smell no alcohol anymore.
Add a couple of big ladles of stock (the rice has to be covered with stock) and keep on stirring gently until the rice absorbs the stock. Add the saffron halfway through the cooking process.
The most important thing to do while preparing risotto is to add stock constantly. As soon as the rice gets drier but not completely dry you have to add some stock.
Let the rice become “al dente” and make it quite compact, thus not too liquid. At the end of the cooking process remove the risotto from the burner, add the grated Grana or Parmesan cheese, some pepper and 1 egg, stirring well afterwards.
Leave the rice to cool off a bit.
ARANCINI: fry the other half of the onion in a bit of olive oil and add the peas once the onion becomes soft and translucent. Add a little bit of water and leave the peas to cook thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and leave to cool off.
Dice the mozzarella, make half rice balls (as big as half a small orange), fill them with one piece of mozzarella and some peas and cover with the same amount of risotto to create whole balls, compacting them with your hands.
Beat the remaining 3 eggs with a pinch of salt. Roll the rice balls in flour then dip them quickly in the beaten eggs and finally roll them in bread crumbs.
Fry the arancini in hot sunflower or peanut oil until golden brown, remove them from the fryer with a slotted spoon and lay them on some kitchen paper to remove the excess oil. Serve quite hot but please pay attention: the inside part can be scalding hot, so be careful.