Deep fried balls of saffron-infused rice with a crunchy first bite that is soon met with a cheesy centre filled with some of the most popular flavours of the Italian cuisine, arancini (or arancino) is a Sicilian specialty that has everything you can hope for in a snack: they are portable, can be made in advance, and are utterly satisfying.
Arancini alla Norma is just one variation of the myriad ways arancini can be prepared, and uses a filling made from eggplant and tomatoes as opposed to the more commonplace filling of ragù. It’s a meatless option that will easily win over everyone, carnivores and vegetarians alike.
Arancini, or arancino, has its origins in the Sicilian cuisine that go back to the end of the 19th century.
Whilst arancini with a meat ragù centre is probably the most widely known version seen often around the world at Italian eateries, a walk through the streets of the southern regions of Italy reveals countless ways that the locals have adapted the recipe in line with popular local produce.
For example, it is not uncommon to find caciocavallo cheese – a stretched-curd cheese shaped like a tear drop that is typical of the region of Puglia, or provolone – a semi-hard cheese favoured in Naples; some arancini are even made with a ragù of fish such as the popular baccalà (cod fish).
Makes 12 arancini
This is a recipe that can be easily adapted to your personal preference or to what ingredients you have on hand – substitute the filling for a simple prosciutto ham and mozzarella mix or try it with a classic ragù. If you can find other cheeses such as caciocavallo, pecorino, mozzarella di bufala or provola, they will work just as fine too.
The arancini will stay in the fridge for a couple of days after they’ve been cooked. Alternatively, prepare them right to the final step before frying, and conserve them in the freezer in freezer bags for a later date.
Just remember to fry them directly from the freezer and give them a few more minutes for cooking.
About an hour ahead of preparation, sprinkle salt evenly on the diced eggplant to remove any bitterness and draw some of the liquid out. Cook the rice by bringing the broth to a boil in a pan with the saffron, add the rice and cook over medium heat until the broth is completely absorbed.
Turn off the heat and stir in the butter. Let the rice cool for a couple of hours, then stir in the grated parmesan, season with salt as needed.
Prepare the filling: heat a large pan with some oil on medium heat and sauté the eggplant until lightly golden. Add the tomato paste to the pan to heat through, then remove pan from heat. Stir in the hard ricotta.
Now you can shape the arancini: take a couple of tablespoons of rice in your palm, add a heaped spoonful of filling, add a couple of cubes of mozzarella, and enclose the filling completely adding more rice as needed. Repeat with the rest of the ingredients.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and water.
Place the breadcrumbs nearby in a separate bowl. Heat the oil in a deep pan, and when ready, roll the rice balls in the flour mixture, followed by the breadcrumbs and fry for a few minutes until golden brown. Drain the arancini on paper towels, and serve warm.
The beloved arancini is celebrated by Sicilians all over the island on the Christian feast day commemorating Santa Lucia, the patron saint of the city of Syracuse in Sicily, on the 13th of December.
Whilst tradition calls for the consumption of whole grains on this day – hence no bread or pasta is allowed – the locals call it the ‘day of the arancini’ for good reason: bakeries close their doors, and numerous delis and street-side vendors offer arancini in all its delicious variations, filling the air with the saliva-inducing scent of fried rice balls in the streets.