Today, we are headed to Southern Italy, and more specifically Sicily, for one of the most popular specialties of the region called arancini, and more particularly the arancini al burro version.
What are arancini?
Arancini are stuffed rice balls of Sicilian origin, which are coated with a light crispy batter, then deep fried.
What are the different versions of arancini?
Among the most common versions of arancini, you will find:
- Arancini al ragù or arancini al sugo: filled with ragù (meat in tomato sauce and spices), as well as mozzarella cheese, and sometimes peas
- Arancini al burro, filled with ham (or prosciutto) and mozzarella or besciamella (bechamel sauce)
- Arancini alla Norma, filled with eggplant and tomato, and originally from the Sicilian city of Catania
- Arancini al pistacchio, filled with a bechamel sauce prepared with Bronte pistachios, that are grown not far from Mount Etna
- Arancini ai funghi, filled with porcini mushrooms
- Arancini al tartufo, filled with truffle, which are more popular in Milan
- Arancini al cioccolato, filled with chocolate (or Nutella) and covered with cinnamon sugar
Other versions include sausage, gorgonzola, chicken, swordfish and even squid ink.
What is the origin of arancini?
The origins of arancini are really a combination of several influences.They can be traced back first to the Greeks who introduced the cheese.
The Arabs then contributed the rice and the saffron, as well as the way this ball of rice would be consumed with the hand served with or followed by a scoop of meat. Ragù derives from the French ragout, which is a slow-cooked stew. Eventually, the tomatoes were brought by the Spanish conquistadors from the New World, around the 16th century.
It is believed that arancini have originated in 10th-century Sicily at a time when the island was under Arab rule.
Arancini are similar to foods that were popular in the Middle East during the Middle Ages. The Italian name comes from the word for orange (arancia), because of the resemblance in color and texture.
According to culinary historians from Catania (Sicily), arancini were initially cylinder-shaped rice croquettes and were much larger than they are today. Some of them were prepared in monasteries, and over time, they became smaller in size.
As a number of older traditional recipes, there is a story associated with the origin of the arancini. In the thirteenth century, Frederick II, who became King of Sicily in 1198, was looking for a meal for when he was traveling, whether for hunting or when he was forced to wars.
In the Campania region of Naples, the arancini were first introduced into the Kingdom of Naples by the Aragones around the 15th century. They called them pall’e di riso (rice balls).
Some people claim that saffron risotto, Milan’s signature dish, is nothing more than a poorly executed arancino that fell apart on a plate!
The tradition of Santa Lucia
In Palermo, Syracuse, and Trapani, arancini are a traditional food served during the feast of Santa Lucia.
Santa Lucia is actually the patron saint of Syracuse. A miracle is attested by written records for the end of the famine on May 13, 1646. That day, a dove was seen hovering in the Cathedral during the mass. A voice then announced the arrival at the port of a ship full of grain. The whole population saw that ship as an answer to the many prayers to their beloved Santuzza.
The Feast of the Santa Lucia now takes place on December 13th. It is a very significant celebration, which attracts a huge number of faithful. For the feast, cuccìa, a typical dessert made from wheat and ricotta with candied fruit and honey, is prepared, along with arancini.
This is the same Santa Lucia, who is celebrated in Sweden, also on December 13th, with the traditional procession and the delicious saffron buns called lussekatter.
What is the origin of rice in Sicily?
Of course, the cultivation of rice requires water. During the Arab rule of Sicily that started around the 10th century, the Arabs built very innovative and efficient irrigation systems. At that time, the island was greener with a cooler climate including larger forests, and more streams, rivers and lakes. The Arabs revolutionized agriculture then, and were able to introduce crops such as oranges, lemons, pistachio, sugarcane and cotton.
Indeed, the introduction of rice in Sicily parallels that in Spain and shares no connection with rice farming in Piedmont. Piedmont is the sub-alpine region of northern Italy where arborio and other rice varieties are still cultivated today.
What is the origin of saffron in Sicily?
The rice used in arancini is flavored and colored with saffron. Though saffron was cultivated in antiquity in Greece and Sicily, the yellow-hued spice became more popular in medieval Arab cuisine. It is one of the main spices used in preparing paella. Saffron was also used as a pigment in medieval painting.
Arancino or Arancina?
The name of the traditional Sicilian rice ball is obviously linked to the name of the orange, the citrus fruit which is the pride of Sicily. The female arancina is the diminutive of the word orange, and it owes its name to its round shape. In this case, the plural is arancine, and it is very common in Palermo (western part of Sicily).
The feminine form is perceived as more correct, at least in the formal use, as from the second half of the twentieth century, the feminine form has been used for the names of the fruits and the masculine for the trees.
The masculine arancino is the Italianized diminutive of the word arànciu, orange in the Sicilian dialect. In this case, the plural is arancini, and it is very common in Catania (eastern part of Sicily).
Nowadays, the arancine made in western Sicily are round while those made in eastern Sicily (particularly around Catania) are often pear-shaped or conical. The conical version is supposed to represent the volcano Etna.
What are the different variants of arancini?
In Roman cuisine, supplì are similar but are commonly filled with cheese, although older traditional versions of supplì included chicken giblets or mincemeat. They are usually served with a tomato sauce, as well as with no tomato sauce (supplì in bianco).
In Naples, rice balls are called pall’e riso and also come in a timbale shape called sartù di riso. This version may have originated from the Monzù chefs. Queen Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples in the late 18th century, was sent chefs from France by her younger sister, Marie Antoinette.
In the Bourbon court, a fusion of rich French cuisine and the “poor” cuisine (cucina povera) from Naples was born. The dishes that were created were prepared by highly trained professional chefs, referred to as Monzù, a Neapolitan corruption of “monsieur”.
The frittata di riso is a less common take on frittata di pasta, and presented as a larger round rice omelette.
The recognition of arancini
Arancini have officially been recognized and included in the list of traditional Italian agri-food products (PAT) of the Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies (MiPAAF – Minestero della politiche agricole alimentari e forestali).
How to make arancini
You first need to cook the rice, just as you would cook risotto, with butter and saffron. Once the rice is cooled, you can shape balls (or cones) and fill them with a prepared stuffing. In the arancini al burro recipe presented here, this stuffing includes bechamel sauce, cheese and ham, but this filling could also substitute butter for bechamel sauce.
Purists will say that you should not use beaten eggs in the batter in order to bind the rice. Indeed, arancini are traditionally dipped in a pastella, which is a batter of flour and water only. Dip the rice in this batter, which will act as a glue, before coating with the breadcrumbs. This will help make the shell crisp and solid, and help keep the filling soft.
Deep-fry the arancini for a few minutes until they are golden brown. Arancini can be eaten warm or cold.
Arancini are the perfect versatile snack, which can be prepared as a salato (salty snack) or even a dolce (sweet snack) in its chocolate version. Those “Italian tapas”, also referred to as stuzzichini, are delicious as is, or served with a tomato sauce.
I prepared these arancini al burro for a New Year’s eve dinner with friends, whose theme was fancy finger foods. They were definitely a huge success!
The arancini featured in the pictures here were shaped as suppli. Traditional arancini are usually larger in size and shaped like cones.
- 2½ cups risotto rice (short or medium grain, like Arborio or Carnaroli)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- ½ teaspoon saffron , diluted in 2 tablespoons of hot water
- 6 cups vegetable broth (or water)
- Bechamel sauce (see recipe below)
- 3 oz. ham , diced
- 3 oz. cheese (mozzarella, scamorza or provolone), diced or shredded
- 2 cups milk
- 5 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup flour
- A pinch of nutmeg
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup water
- 1½ cup breadcrumbs
- Vegetable oil
- In a pot over medium heat, toast the rice with the butter for 2 minutes while stirring.
- Start adding one ladle of broth and the saffron, and stir.
Continue cooking the rice over medium heat for at least 20 minutes, while stirring and adding one ladle of broth at a time, until the rice is al dente.
- Let rice cool to room temperature.
- Season with salt and pepper and mix well.
- In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat until foaming.
- Stir in the flour to form a paste.
- Lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring constantly for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Whisk in the milk until smooth, and add a pinch of nutmeg.
- Bring to a simmer, and continue to cook, stirring, until the bechamel sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 5 minutes.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Mix the bechamel sauce with the ham and cheese.
- Put a generous spoonful of rice in one hand and flatten it against the palm in order to obtain a hole in the center.
- Fill the hole with a tablespoon of filling.
- Cover everything with a little rice and form the shape of a small orange (or a cone if you prefer).
Then prepare a liquid batter by mixing the flour and water. Season with salt.
- Dip the rice balls first into the batter and then into the breadcrumbs.
Heat a large volume of oil in a large pot at medium-high heat.
- Deep fry the rice balls, a few at a time.
Remove the rice balls with a slotted spoon when they are golden brown and place them on a plate lined with paper towel.
- Serve the rice balls warm or at room temperature.