Having just returned from a trip to Sicily, I wanted to recreate the flavors and tastes that I had the pleasure of experiencing there. Although our produce differs from the Sicilian crops that grow in lava-rich soil, and we may have to find substitutes for seafood found only in the Mediterranean, the attitude towards cooking is something we can recreate here. At its core, that attitude is simply to maintain food at its purest, so that tomatoes taste of the earth and fish taste of the sea.
The following antipasto recipe is for arancini, which literally means "little oranges." Arancini are fried rice balls stuffed with meat ragu or, my favorite, pistachios and peas. They can be as large as oranges or as small as apricots, round or teardrop-shaped. Every Sicilian cafe serves arancini, and each one has its own version.
Traditionally, they are coated in breadcrumbs, but my version uses panko, as I prefer the crunchy texture. So fry up a batch and enjoy them with an aperitivo; close your eyes and imagine sitting in the middle of a piazza overlooking a beautiful Baroque cathedral while inhaling the sea-scented air. Buon appetito!
Pistachio & Peas AranciniSERVINGS: MAKES 16 ARANCINI
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, minced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 cups chicken stock, warmed
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 cup milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, diced into ½ inch cubes
1/4 cup finely chopped salted pistachios
2 tablespoons peas, (if frozen, then thawed; if fresh, then blanched)
2 large eggs, beaten
2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
Vegetable oil, for frying
In a large saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, 7 minutes. Add the rice and stir until well coated with butter. Add the white wine and saffron, season with salt and black pepper and cook, stirring, until the wine is absorbed, 2 minutes. Add the warm chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time and cook, stirring constantly between additions, until it is absorbed. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente, 25 minutes total. Stir in the grated cheese, transfer to a bowl and let cool.
Melt the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of butter in a small saucepan. Add the 1/2 tablespoon of flour and whisk constantly over moderate heat for 1 minute. Add the milk and cook, whisking, until thickened. Season with the nutmeg, salt and black pepper and transfer to a bowl to cool completely. Stir in the mozzarella, pistachios and peas.
Line a large baking sheet with wax paper. Put the eggs, panko and flour for dusting in 3 shallow bowls. Using lightly moistened hands, shape the rice mixture into 16 equal balls. Working with one ball at a time, make an indentation in the center with your finger and press the sides to make the hollow larger. Spoon a scant tablespoon of the pistachio filling into the hollow and press the risotto around the filling to enclose it. Transfer the ball to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining risotto and filling. Dust the arancini with flour, tapping off the excess. Coat them with the egg and roll in the panko.
In a large, deep skillet/fryer, heat vegetable oil to 350°. Fry the arancini over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until golden and heated through, approximately 6 minutes. Drain the arancini on paper towels and serve. Arancini can be made 1 day in advance and reheated in 350° for 10 minutes.