A toast to Europe
There is nothing more delicious than arancini, little deep-fried rice balls that date back to 10th century Sicily
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I think I may have woken the whole neighbourhood last Friday morning with my expletive-heavy reaction to the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union (EU). I wasn’t alone—I, like most of the country, spent the next few days in shock, fearful and angry, muttering words like “seismic”, “catastrophic”, “apocalyptic”.
Eventually, though, I needed to escape the non-stop TV news and the increasingly alarming social media updates. In the kitchen, I spent the weekend absorbed in the most elemental and eternal kind of cookery, the kind that reassures us the world hasn’t gone completely mad and reminds us of food’s role as chief nourisher and comforter. I nurtured a new sourdough bread starter, made elderflower cordial with the pickings of a country walk, scones to eat with jam and cream after the walk, and risotto for dinner. The world didn’t suddenly become okay but I felt a little more able to deal with it.
There is no doubt that if our country leaves Europe (although we Scots, who voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe, are clinging to the hope that our doughty First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will be able to make the nightmare go away with some kind of veto), there are dark days ahead. Certainly in our kitchens, where food we have previously imported cheaply from the EU will potentially become much more expensive. Will we return to the pre-EU days of my childhood, when risotto rice was unheard of and a packet of spaghetti was a rare and expensive treat?
If so, let’s enjoy Europe’s great bounty while we can—and there is nothing more delicious than arancini. These little deep-fried rice balls are thought to date back to 10th century Sicily, when Arab invaders introduced rice to the island. In the cities of Palermo and Trapani, they were traditionally made for the winter feast of Santa Lucia but these days they are widely available year-round. They are usually made with leftover risotto—a cunning way to get two meals out of our soon-to-become precious supplies of Arborio rice. Personally, I love these “little oranges” so much I often make risotto with the sole intention of making arancini. In Sicily, you might find them filled with meat or mushrooms but I’ve never strayed beyond a small cube of mozzarella. This probably makes mine the Roman croquette known as “supplì al telefono” because of the “telephone wires” of molten cheese you are rewarded with when you take a bite.
You could experiment with any kind of risotto—a simple saffron risotto Milanese is perfect. I used a pumpkin and sage variety the first time I made them but leek and spinach is the version I make most often. Though they’re great on their own—they make lovely appetizers—I think they’re absolutely at their best with a sharp vinegary, mustardy salad for a real treat of a lunch.
As I mentioned last time, often these days there are just two of us for dinner and there were no young takers for the risotto dinner—as usual, there were work, social, Game Of Thrones commitments they had to attend to. Interestingly, our children never have anything more pressing to deal with when arancini appears. And so we had a lovely lunch à trois, enjoying the very best of Europe while simultaneously pondering on our lives out of it.
Leek and Spinach Risotto
2 leeks, finely chopped
200g Arborio (risotto rice)
1 litre vegetable stock
50g Parmesan, grated
Ground black pepper
Melt half the butter in a pan, add the leeks and sauté until cooked, but not browned. Add the rice and stir to coat it with the butter. Heat the stock, then add a ladleful to the rice. Stir until the stock has been completely absorbed by the rice. Repeat this until the rice is cooked but not squishy—you may not need all the stock, you may need a little more. Meanwhile, wash and drain the spinach, then tip it into a large pan, cover with a lid and heat until the spinach has wilted but is still bright green. Drain and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Chop finely.
When the rice is cooked but still has a tiny bit of bite to it, stir in the spinach, Parmesan and remaining butter. Serve with extra Parmesan and ground black pepper.
Keep any leftover risotto in the fridge until you’re ready to make the arancini.
The quantities are approximate, adjust according to how much risotto you have left. Believe me, however many you make, there won’t be enough.
Leftover cold risotto
1 large mozzarella ball, cut into small cubes
1 egg, beaten
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
Shape the risotto into balls about the size of an apricot. Press your thumb into the ball, insert a small cube of mozzarella and enclose with the rice.
Put the flour, egg and breadcrumbs into three separate bowls. Coat the arancini in flour, egg and breadcrumbs in turn.
Heat enough oil in a pan to deep-fry the arancini. Heat over medium heat—it is hot enough when you put a few breadcrumbs in and they sizzle and float up to the top of the oil. Put a few arancini into the oil at a time and cook until they are golden brown all over. Cook until all the arancini are crisp and golden brown. Serve immediately with a well- dressed green salad.
The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.
Also Read: Pamela’s previous Lounge columns