When I was growing up, Italian food meant very few things. Pizza at Rinaldo's. Mom's skillet spaghetti. Lasagne and ravioli from Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. That was about it. We didn't know anything about real marinara, bolognese, or red gravy. The only Italian cheese I ever had was the powdered sawdust in the green can. Mozzarella, Ricotta, Marscarpone, Romano, Provolone and the wide variety of exquisite cheese were a whole 'nother world. Northern Italian? Southern Italian? Scicilian? You mean there was a difference?
As an adult, as I began my journey through different worlds of food, I learned a bit about Northern Italian food. It was similar to French with its wine and cream based sauces. It was within my comfort zone and I learned to love it. It was a far cry from my mother's spaghetti. But I never learned to embrace Southern style Italian, which still seemed to me just noodles and tomato sauce with cheese in various forms. Sure, I made the occasional lasagne or spaghetti, but I never went any further.
On my trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I had the opportunity to work with Roseann, a REAL Italian cook, in her restaurant kitchen, Red Gravy. What an enlightenment! Two dishes in particular were so fabulous that I've tried to reproduce them at home. The first was the wonderful Ragu of Short Ribs that I posted about in March. The other - ohhh, the other - is a crunchy/creamy dish called Arancini. Often called 'rice balls', the name just doesn't do them justice. They are a ball of risotto, stuffed with cheese and other things of your choice, breaded, and deep fried. Whoa! When your fork (or your teeth) breaks through that crust and the filling oozes out, it's food porn on a plate.
Roseann makes food for her restaurant in quantities that I could never use (Thank goodness - if she only sold small quantities, she'd go broke!). So, I worked with leftovers. I had some risotto from 2 days ago, and braised beef from yesterday. When my tomatoes finished coming in last month, I made many jars of tomato sauce. Everything I needed! The result? Almost as good as hers.
Maybe I'll have to take another trip to New Orleans to see what else I can learn!
Arancini Stuffed with Meat, Cheese & Peas
This is more of a technique than a recipe. I don't have exact measurements, but I have a photo tutorial. I had 280 grams (10 ounces) of leftover risotto. Alright - stop laughing! Yes, I weighed the rice. I just wanted to make sure I divided it up evenly. It's not really so silly. Well, maybe it is. So don't weigh yours. Just divide it up into evenly sized balls. Mine were probably about 1/4 cup of rice, but they can be bigger or smaller. Chop up a bit of cheese, and mix it with other stuff. I used some peas. Toasted chopped walnuts or pinenuts would be good. I used provolone because I thought it would stand up better to the flavor of the saffron risotto. But mozzarella or fontina would work well. Just make sure it's a soft melting cheese.
Pick up a mound of rice, and flatten it a bit in your hand. Then use your thumb to make a pocket in it.
Now start putting things in the pocket. Be careful. You're just putting a teaspoon or two of total ingredients in there. Too much, and your ball won't seal up. I put a forkful of leftover beef ragu, some chopped up provolone, and a few frozen peas.
Next, start to carefully shape that rice around the filling to form a ball. Make sure that you leave no holes or gaps.
Now get your breading all set up. Line up three small bowls - one with some flour, salt & pepper - one with a beaten egg and a teaspoon of water - one with dry bread crumbs. Let your balls anticipate their dip.
Roll each ball first in the flour, then the egg, then the bread crumbs. Refrigerate until ready to fry.
Put enough oil in a deep pan to completely cover the balls. Heat it to 360-370F. Drop the rice balls into the hot oil and cook until deep golden brown, turning occasionally so they don't burn on the bottom. Remember, all the ingredients are already cooked, so you're just making an outside crust and melting the cheese inside. You don't have to worry about timing too much. Drain on paper towels.
Plating is optional. If you make these small, they can be appetizers or finger foods. If you make them larger, they're supper. We had them for supper. I laid a spoonful of homemade tomato sauce on a plate, and set 2 balls on the sauce. Then I added another spoonful of hot, leftover ragu to each. Sprinkle some basil chiffonade and fresh grated parmesan or romano over it. Add a side salad, and you have a meal.