Like An Arancino

Syndicated

Leaving my grandfather behind once again via an abrupt choice of transportation, she decided she would rather be dragged to death than let that dirty son-of-a-bitch of a scippatore win. Her new and utterly confused chauffeur traveled with her for a block before he gave up. Though her nylons may have lost the battle, Rita won the war. It was the shortest excursion of her holiday, but it left the deepest impression.

As convenience would have it, my grandmother was deposited directly in front of the home of a luncheoning doctor. He ran to his window to find a woman of extreme middle age lying in the street below him: smudged, bloodied, and white-knuckling a handbag. (To this day, my cousin Ann Marie still marvels at the quality of that purse's stitching). He helped her to her feet and brought her inside where he could examine her more closely.

Upon entering the doctor's house, my grandmother fell into a state of severe shock. Though her injuries were fortunately minor, it was the interior of this kind stranger's house which caused her convulsions.

She could not get over how beautiful everything in his home was. She was overwhelmed by the fact that a house, whose façade was so dull and cracked and unassuming, could hide such inner richness.

As a headstrong woman with the apparent upper body strength to match, she recounted the story as though it were a foregone conclusion that she should be victorious over the purse snatcher. She was always more interested in telling us of the fine paintings, the sparkling crystal of the chandeliers, and gorgeous detail of the fabrics and draperies she found inside the doctor's house. She sounded like a female Ali Baba stumbling into the cave of the forty thieves rather than into the home of a good Samaritan.

When she talked of the doctor's furnishings, however, she wasn't bowled over by his wealth. Instead, I sometimes came away with the impression that she was moved by something else. Something deeper: the idea that a something plain and sturdy and old  could hold within its walls a beauty and a hidden richness that only those who are allowed inside can see.

When she told that story, I don't think she saw herself as the victor over the thief. I think instead she saw herself as the doctor's house.

At least, that's the way I see her now. A crusty old woman with a no-nonsense façade, but with a warm, rich heart shown only to those lucky enough to be allowed in to see.

Or, in culinary terms, like an arancino.

Arancini

An important thing to remember about arancini is that it means "little oranges" in Italian. I've heard one man on television tell his viewers that he likes to make them pear-shaped, which would necessarily make them "piccole pere." He clearly has no respect for the Italian language.

I doubt very much my grandmother ever gave the matter much thought. It may have never occurred to her to make risotto in the first place, since it's a Northern Italian thing. However, one of the most delightful notions about arancini is that the Sicilians have taken a food staple of the North and made it something very much their own.

It's almost as if they're saying, "Eat me, Po Valley" every time they make it-- a culinary thumbing of the nose. Or, if you want to be more authentically Italian, this gesture.

Makes about 10 little oranges.

You can stuff your arancini with whatever suits your fancy. The following recipe, though bloody good is merely one example.  Just be certain to make the flavors bold. There is no room for subtlety in these little fried balls.

Ingredients:

• About 550 grams (20 ounces) of basic risotto, refrigerated. About 5-ish cups of the stuff. I am not teaching you how to make risotto today. If you'd like to know how try this place or this one, but for god's sake not this one. Just make a lot, so you can have enough left over to make this recipe.
• Approximately 150 grams of pancetta (2 1/2 inch-think slices) finely chopped
• 1 1/2 cups of grated smoked fontina cheese (I did not measure this in grams, but it's honestly not important.)
• 1 tablespoon of finely chopped parsley. I used Italian for obvious reasons.
• 3 whole eggs
• Plenty of Panko bread crumbs. About 2 cups. Regular breadcrumbs are more authentic, but I am not authentically Sicilian and therefore do not care.
•  A good amount of all-purpose flour, for coating and dredging. I wouldn't dream of measuring this and neither should you.
• 1 quart of vegetable oil for frying
• As much salt and pepper as you are willing to invest.

Preparation:

1.  To make the filling, dice up the pancetta* and cook gently over a low-to-medium heat until it releases a good amount of grease. Once it is sitting in a puddle of its own hot fat, turn up the heat to medium and cook until browned and fairly crispy. Remove from heat, drain onto a paper towel-lined plate. Once the pancetta has cooled, mix it together with the grated cheese and parsley. Cover and refrigerate overnight or until ready to use.

2. Pour the vegetable oil into your pan to a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep. Warm the oil over low heat on the stove while you're assembling the arancini. I would strongly suggest you use a frying thermometer to properly gauge the ultimate, desired temperature, which is 350ºF. If you are experienced enough to interpret the subtle changes in hot oil temperatures, you will not need one and you have my full respect.

Pre-heat your oven to 400ºF.

3. Clear a good-sized workspace on your counter. Assemble ingredients to be put into three separate bowls: 1) Two eggs, lightly beaten with about 2 tablespoons of cold water, 2) all-purpose flour generously sprinkled with salt and freshly cracked pepper, and 3) bread crumbs. Remove risotto and arancini filling from the refrigerator.

4. Divide the risotto into equal portions. I prefer to weigh mine for the sake of consistency to 55 grams, which is a substantial weight. If you're planning to serve your arancini as hors d'oeuvres, you will want to make them smaller. Roll the filling into balls roughly the size of a tablespoon and set aside.

5. Take one of the risotto balls and press a deep hole into the middle of it with your thumb. Inside it, place the ball of filling and gently shape the rice around it until you have a smooth, even sphere. Repeat until all of the risotto balls have been filled.

6. Roll each ball in the bowl of flour, shaking off any excess. Next, dip the floured ball in the egg wash and shake off any of this new-found excess. Finally, roll the floured, egg-washed ball in bread crumbs, gently pressing them into the surface of the sphere, making it as round and lovely as you dare. Repeat until you run out of materials or get utterly bored.

7. Place the balls into your 350ºF frying oil two or three at a time. Do not over crowd the pan. Turn the balls gently as you fry them, making sure they brown evenly. Once they are sufficiently golden in color, remove them from the oil and let them drain on to a paper towel-lined plate. About 2 to 3 minutes per batch.**

8. Place as many arancini as you and/or your guests can eat onto a parchment lined baking sheet and pop into your 400ºF oven for about 10 minutes. You'll know they are ready to eat when their bottoms begin to bubble, which signals that their insides are now properly molten.

9. Serve hot with either your favorite tomato sauce or a simple wedge of lemon to squeeze over them. If you want to serve them the way my grandmother would, if she had cared to make them, make sure everyone else is fed, apologize for the remote possibility that they might not be your best effort, (outwardly) brush aside any and all assurances to the contrary, and only sit down once everyone at the table has begged you to do so and that the dishes left in the kitchen can wait until after dinner is over.

* I have found it's best to slice pancetta when it is cold. It's much more easily done this way and will save you time and emergency room fees.

** At this point, your arancini can be held for a couple of hours at room temperature before serving. However, it will take a little more time in the oven until their bottoms bubble properly.

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