Oven-Baked Sicilian Arancini
It truly was a case of love at first bite for me with Arancini. I remember the feeling of total satisfaction back then and it is no different today. Even as a child, the combination of crispy breadcrumbs on the outside, hot, tasty saffron rice on the inside and the deliciously juicy ground meat filling at the center of it all was simply wonderful. I tasted my first one as a small child, in Sicily and it will always be the defining savory snack of the island for me. Forget your pizza, forget your pannini... the word on the streets is Arancini!
The only "problem" I have ever had with arancini, was the fact that they were deep fried. And the only reason I had a problem with that was that I have struggled with my weight most of my life. So for most of my adult life, I have avoided fried and fatty foods- easy for me when it comes to a lot of things... but not my arancini! So imagine my feeling of triumph this evening after having managed to create a version that can be baked in the oven!
I am going to go out on a limb now and claim that arancini were invented as a method of using leftover risotto. If that wasn't the case- oh well! In any case it is what I would recommend you doing- because although leftover risotto really is not worth heating up, because it would overcook- this way you can put it to good use and make something altogether more special out of it. But you can also make up a simple risotto from scratch and use that. Using a chicken or vegetable stock prepare a risotto- skip the steps of using onions and garlic and wine etc- just a bland saffron and broth affair is all you need. That and enough time for it to cool off. And in the meantime you can prepare the tomato/meat/peas sauce filling.
The sauce is in itself also a single affair- a classic "sofritto" of carrot, celery and onion, a little finely chopped pancetta, some ground mixed beef and pork, a little garlic and a hot saucepan make for a good starting point! Add tomato past to this and de-glaze the saucepan with a little red wine. Now add some tomato juice and some frozen peas. Not too much liquid, as we want the rice balls to hold together well later. Season with basil, oregano, salt and pepper and simmer for a good 30 minutes. And then this needs to cool down too!
There are 2 schools of thought when it comes to forming the arancini- some people will mix an egg into the rice, in order to have it stick together better and others don't. Tonight I didn't. The name "arancini" is of course derivitive of the fact that they are of the same size and golden color as an orange when they are finished. So let's start by dipping our fingers into some water, so that out hands don't stick, and forming balls of rice of about the size of a small orange. Flatten the rice down a little and form a hollow in the center. Fill each rice ball with about a teaspoon of the meat and a few chunks of cheese. I used ricotta, but you can also use mozzarella, parmesan or any favorite you may have. Now press the ball gently back into shape and take a pinch of the risotto and pat it over the opening to seal it. Keep pressing the ball into shape and then roll it in breadcrumbs. I added a little grated parmesan and finely chopped parsley to the crumbs, as well as a little grated nutmeg. Again- you could dip it into egg first, to coat the rice balls. but I found that they stuck to the moist rice just fine.
I baked mine in a moderately hot oven for around 30 mins. The important trick is to pour some olive oil onto your oven tray and to either spread it around with a brush... or failing that, your fingers. Now lay the arancini onto the lightly greased tray and roll them around. This should insure that they get a light oil coating and that the breadcrumbs become golden and brown. Nothing needs to "cook" anymore- it is just a matter of bringing everything back up to temperature and of getting those breadcrumbs toasty!
They ARE a little delicate, so handle with care... but I managed to do so without them falling apart- and you have to be equally careful with them even if you prepare them in a deep fat frier. But if you are a little careful, you will be rewarded with wonderfully satisfying, comforting and simply GOOD arancini! Just like in the old country! But without the fat!