Christmas Eve is always my day for whipping up a decadent feast — whether I have one guest or two dozen. I like to pretend I’m an Italian grandmother for the day. I even rise before noon to get a good sauce going. I make a hearty main dish, some secondary offerings and a dessert or two. But this year what won the most raves — and proved my favorite, as well — was a simple appetizer.
Yes, I had a big recipe revelation on a small plate: arancine. That means small orange in Italian, but it has no citrus in it. That merely refers to the shape and size of the cheese-stuffed risotto balls I made. And if you’re still looking for something to serve with your cocktails on New Year’s Eve, these work well. They can be made in advance and served at room temperature or reheated just before serving.
Arancine originated in Sicily in the 10th century. In Italian households, they’re a popular way to use leftover risotto, though they’re also served in cafes with a variety of fillings. Ragu and mozzarella are the most popular fillings. Mine are made with fontina, another Italian cheese that melts like a dream. The first time I tasted these rice balls was courtesy of Trader Joe’s freezer section. They were stuffed with fontina, and I thought: These are good, but I bet they’re great homemade. And I was right.
I found a recipe from Lidia Bastianich’s cookbook, “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen.” I adapted it in a few ways: I halved it because the original made quite a few arancine; I added fresh herbs and breadcrumbs to the risotto mixture to add flavor and stability; and I substituted fontina for the ragu filling.
1 c. short-grain rice, such as arborio or carnaroli
2.5 c. chicken stock
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 c. pecorino romano
8 oz. fontina, cut in small cubes
2-3 tbsp. chopped parsley or other herbs such as basil and oregano
1 tbsp. dried, fine Italian breadcrumbs
• Bring stock and olive oil to a boil.
• Stir in the rice, return to boil, then reduce to a simmer.
• Cook uncovered until al dente, about 12 minutes.
• Drain rice, then spread out on sheet pan to cool.
• Once room temperature, scrape rice with rubber spatula into a bowl.
• Add eggs, cheese, breadcrumbs and herbs.
• Take a handful of rice (1/3 cup) and roll it into a small ball in your hand.
• Make a well in the center, insert fontina, and re-form the ball.
• Repeat and set on your sheet pan to prepare to fry.
To assemble and cook:
1 c. flour
1 egg, beaten
1 c. dried, fine Italian breadcrumbs
1 c. vegetable oil + 1/4 c. olive oil
• Dredge rice balls in flour to coat; tap off excess.
• Roll in eggs, then into breadcrumbs.
• Heat oil to 375 degrees in a deep skillet.
• Fry about half the arancine at a time, about four minutes until crispy and golden brown.
• Drain on a paper towel.
• Use the best rice you can find. I found imported carnaroli at an Italian market.
• Keep the oil hot. Don’t crowd the pan because it brings down the temperature of the oil. Adjust your heat to keep the temperature around 375 degrees. Work in three batches if necessary.
• Make it a few hours before your party and reheat in a warm oven (250 or so) when guests arrive.
WHAT TO SERVE THEM WITH
I served the arancine with miniature martinis with an Italian accent. I create a double cocktail then measure it out for about four miniature cocktails.
• Peartini: 4.5 oz. pear vodka, 1 oz. lemon juice, 1 oz. amaretto, .25 oz. agave nectar
• Lemon drop: 4 oz. lemon vodka, 2 oz. lemon or meyer lemon juice, 1 oz. limoncello
• Orange drop: 4 oz. orange vodka, 2 oz. orange juice, 1 oz. orangello