Some of the best rice balls I have ever had, outside of my mother’s kitchen, was at a food stand on the ferry that went across the straights of Messina from Calabria to Sicily. Leave it to the Italians to serve a delicious dish like rice balls as a fast food snack. They made them just like my mother used to make, crispy on the outside, tender rice midway through and a center filled with tomatoe sauce, chopped meat and peas. I envisioned four or five little old Italian ladies back in the galley of the ship forming the rice balls and frying them up to be served. I’m sure I’m not far from that reality. These rice balls were not massed produced or brought in frozen or microwaved.
Rice balls are the perfect on the move snack. They taste great hot but are just as delicious served at room temperature.
The rice you need to use in this dish is Italian Arborio rice. This is a short-grian rice that is named after the town or Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown. When cooked, these rounded grains are firm, creamy and chewy. They have a higher starch content than long grain rice and are ideal for making rice balls because they hold together better. Arborio rice is also used for making risotto and is a good rice for making rice pudding.
I broke up this recipe into three parts. The first is for the chopped meat with peas tomatoe sauce filling. The second is the preparation of the rice. And the third is the assembly and frying of the rice balls. It’s not a really complicated recipe but I thought it would be easier to show it this way. I hope you try it and enjoy it!
Arancini – Sicilian Rice Balls
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 8 ounces chopped beef
- 1 1/2 cups Italian peeled tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 cup frozen peas
- salt and pepper to taste
To make the filling, put the oil, onion and garlic in a medium skillet and cook on medium heat until the onion is soft.
Add the beef to the skillet and brown, breaking up and stirring for about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes, or until thick.
Add the peas and cook 5 more minutes. Taste for seasoning. Set aside to cool.
- 5 cups of chicken broth (3 – 14 1/2 ounce cans)
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
- 2 cups of Arborio rice (1 pound)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
- 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
- 4 large egg yolks
Bring the broth and saffron to a boil in a large pot. Add the rice, butter and salt to taste. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook until tender, about 19 minutes. Make sure all the liquid is evaporated other wise you are going to have a mess trying to form the rice balls if the rice is too liquid.
Remove from the heat and stir in the cheeses. Allow the rice to cool for at least 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then stir in the egg yolks. Spread the rice mixture out on a sheet pan and allow to completely cool, also allowing some of the moisture to evaporate. The rice ball will be easier form this way.
- 5 large egg whites
- 2 cups plain bread crumbs
- flour for dredging
- 4 ounces sharp provolone cheese, cut into small dice
- canola oil for deep frying
For assembly, beat the egg whites in a bowl until foamy. Spread the bread crumbs on a flat plate and the flour on another plate. Place a baking sheet nearby.
OK, now comes the fun part.
Dip your hands in cool water or coat in oil to prevent the rice from sticking. Scoop up about 1/3 cup of rice mixture and place in the palm of one hand. Poke a shallow hole in the center of the rice. Press about 1 tablespoon of the sauce filling into the hole and top it with a piece of provolone. Cup your hands around the rice, molding the rice over the filling to enclose it completely. Add a little more rice if necessary to cover the filling completely. Gently squeeze the ball together to compact the rice. This takes some practice. Handle the rice ball gently.
Carefully ROLL the rice ball in the flour, then the egg whites. ROLL the ball in the bread crumbs, covering completely. Place the rice ball on the baking sheet to dry. Continue making rice balls with the remaining ingredients.
When all the rice balls are made place the rack in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to dry.
Pour about 3 inches of canola oil into a deep fryer or heavy pot and heat to 350 degrees. Fry the rice balls a few at a time until golden brown. Ease them into the oil with a slotted spoon. Place on a plate with paper towels to absorb the oil.
Keep the rice balls in a warm 200 degree oven until all the rice balls are fried. Serve warm.