Recipe: Sicilian Arancini di Risotto with Beef Ragu and Peas

Sicilian style arancini di risotto with beef ragu and peas.
Volunteering as a teaching chef's assistant at the Brooklyn Kitchen (I volunteer about once a month) paid off when I learned to make arancini di risotto a few weeks ago.

An amazingly petite and chatty Italian woman named Amelia, who is actually a wine expert by trade, taught the class. We first shaped sticky day-old risotto into hollow half globes, then filled them with a richly wine flavored ragu that Amelia had made at home, so it would be cool and have had time to set for the class, similar to the risotto, although we did later make a fresh batch of the creamy rice to eat as well.
Arancini di risotto, fresh from the fryer, look similar to and are nearly the same size as oranges;
the name even sounds very close to the Italian word for oranges: arance.

In her care and with her instruction, the arancini came out beautifully. Shaping the balls, learning to not overfill them, and closing them up still required a bit of patience, but coating them in egg, flour, then egg again, and finally bread crumbs, worked like a charm.

At home, a few weeks later, trying to recreate the recipe from memory (I never save written recipes, though in this case I should have) I struggled with the risotto, which came out the tiniest bit wetter than I wanted it to be after sitting the refrigerator for a day. The problem, I think, is I shoveled it into a bowl and covered it too soon, rather than letting it air out a little and cool fully.

The shell of the fried rice ball came out superbly at home, but there was too much rice. See how thick the walls are in the first photo. They should be thinner, not quite half as thin, but thinner nonetheless.

Patient as I tried to be with the beef ragu, sweating onions delicately and evaporating the wine slowly, even though I was anxious to finish and taste, mine did not come with nearly as much depth of flavor as the lovely Italian's. Hers, she admitted, used Barolo, a classy Italian red wine that she just happened to have on hand, but that I wouldn't have dared turn into a sauce, so help me god.

Don't get me wrong: mine was still mouth-watering, and I have at least a pint of it still left over.

Recipe: Sicilian Arancini di Risotto with Beef Ragu and Peas
Makes about six orange-sized rice balls.

half an onion, chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups arborio rice
About 4 cups simmering water
1 tablespoon butter
In a large pan or Dutch oven, wweat the onions in the olive oil gently over low heat until translucent. Add the risotto, and toss to coat. Let the risotto toast a little, about six or seven minutes.

Add a ladle of simmering water to the pan and stir. You'll stir pretty much continuously, folding the rice to keep it moving and evenly absorbing the water. When the water has nearly all absorbed or evaporated, add another ladle-ful. Add a pinch of salt. Repeat for about 20 minutes, then taste the rice. It should be cooked through, but the individual grains should not stick together at all. Italians like their rice al dente; I prefer mine totally cooked through (which may account for why it wasn't sticky enough on day two). It should also look creamy from the starch of the rice.

When the rice has absorbed enough water, turn off the heat, add a few saffron threads, and fold in a knob of butter. Serve immediately on warm plates (not bowls) so everyone eating it can see it move and spread.

Beef Ragu with Sweet Peas
2 to 3 tablespoons canola oil
half an onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
3/4 lb. ground beef (with about 20 percent fat; not lean beef, and not ground sirloin)
dry red wine
white pepper
1 large can (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
In a Dutch oven, sweat the onion, carrot, and celery in the olive oil over low heat until soft. Add a pinch of salt. Turn the heat to low-medium, and clear a space in the center of the pot. Crumble in the ground beef. Brown the beef until nearly all the excessive liquid has evaporated. That part requires patience and vigilance, so keep turning the beef so that none of it burns or sticks.

When the pot has almost no liquid left, turn the heat to medium-high and add some wine. How much is up to you. I added maybe half a cup or a little more. Toss everything around to combine. When the wine is nearly gone, add the tomatoes, and another good pinch of salt, as well as some white pepper. Turn the heat down to low.

Simmer the beef ragu for an hour or so, partially covered. You might add a basil leaf or two, but don't add herbs. This ragu is not meant for parsley and basil. When you're happy with it (taste it, my dear!), let it cool on the stove, then transfer to the refrigerator, still in the Dutch oven and now covered tightly. The next day, the sauce will be very thick. Stir in the peas, and taste and adjust for salt and pepper.

Arancini di Risotto
Risotto, cooked and cooled overnight
Beef ragu with sweet peas, cooked and cooled overnight
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups white flour
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs (seasoned or not, it's up to you)
About 5 to 6 cups canola oil for frying
Set up three stations for coating the arancini: egg, flour, breadcrumb. Remember to put each ingredient in a bowl that can accommodate something a little smaller than a softball, plus your hands.

Heat a Dutch oven or pot for frying with canola oil over medium heat.

Wet your hands in cool water and start with about 3/4 cup of risotto. Shape it into a nest, then if you can, into a hollow half globe. Learn from my mistakes and the photo above: try to get the walls of the ball on the thin side. Add to the hollow area a teaspoon or two of the ragu. Pull or pinch the sides of the rice ball up to close over the filling. You can use a little more rice from the risotto bowl if you need to.

Dip the rice ball in egg wash, then flour, then a second time in egg wash, and finally bread crumbs. Set aside. Repeat to make six arancini total.

Test the heat of the oil by tossing in a clump from your bread crumb bowl (try as you may, there will be  bits of rice and egg in there). If it floats, causes bubbles, and turns golden or brown within 30 seconds, the oil is ready. Don't rush the oil. Those risotto balls aren't going anywhere. They can hang out on a cookie sheet for a while.

Fry the balls, no more than three at a time, turning once until golden all around. Remove with a spider and drain on paper towels, or just a cookie sheet.

Serve warm as part of a main meal, snack, or generous appetizer; or refrigerator or freeze and reheat in a 400F oven.