I love walking.
Next to baking, there is no act for me that is as calming and therapeutic as walking.
I’ve been walking a lot lately. Summer is the season to walk, after all. Despite the odd weather we’ve been having, most nights have been clear and cool, which are the perfect conditions for a walk.
When I head out, I don’t meander. I live in a busy neighbourhood and while there is a park nearby, I wouldn’t venture there by myself. Instead, I stick the main roads and while I wouldn’t say I strike out on a mission, I do walk purposefully.
My purpose is to talk to myself. No. I don’t mean actually have a dialogue with myself out loud. What I mean is that the purpose of my walk is to think, to feel, to sort out tangle of thoughts at the end of another day.
Over the course of my walk, I will think about many things, some good and some bad. I might think of a problem at work or at home, or about a task I have to accomplish, or maybe about the groceries that I need to pick up the next time I’m at the store.
I like to walk alone. Part of me feels badly writing that, because I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I don’t enjoy their company, but of all the activities in my life, walking is the one I prefer to do alone.
On my own, I’m free to follow my mind’s course, whatever that may be. Mostly, I’m free to think about any subject, something you can’t always do when others are around.
Invariably, as I make my way back home, my thoughts turn to food. It’s this quiet time, where I am by myself, that I think most about what I want to cook and bake. There’s very little as pleasurable to me, as scanning my food horizon, waiting for a glimpse of what’s there.
In these last few weeks, as I’ve found myself in the doldrums, my walking has been a constant source of relief. And lately, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about food, and less and less about other things. That’s good.
I’m not sure why, really, but about a week ago, I thought of arancini. For those of you that are unfamiliar, arancini are rice balls that are breaded and fried. Depending on what part of Italy you’re in, the arancini might be plain or filled with some sort of mixture ranging from cheese to meat and vegetables.
Strangely, arancini are not part of my family’s cooking tradition. My mother never made them and as far as I know, no one on my father’s side of the family prepares them. Growing up, I’d often hear some of my Italian friends refer to them, but I was always a bit mystified.
I was probably in my 20s before I finally tried arancini, and the first ones that I had weren’t very good. I would have had them at some restaurant or another and they were probably the size of soccer balls and filled with horrid frozen peas and who-knows-what-else.
Since then, I’ve tasted some very good arancini, thankfully. I think I’ve made them once or twice before but recently, while walking, I was gripped with the urge to make them again. It was like I had this deep, deep need to get into the kitchen and make these little treats.
Strange. But I’ve learned not to question what comes of my walks. I just go with the flow.
This is a recipe that I created myself, so if it is unlike any traditional arancini recipe, or if I offend any arancini purists with it, I apologize in advance. I’ve assembled a photo journal of the process, with the recipe following.
I start the process by quickly sauteeing some arborio rice in a few teaspoons of olive oil to toast the rice slightly.
I use chicken stock to make the rice base, and I cook the rice in the same way I would a risotto. I begin by adding enough hot stock to the uncooked rice to cover it, and slowly let it simmer until absorbed.
Once absorbed, I repeat the process by adding more stock. I continue doing this, adding stock, until the rice is cooked.
Unlike risotto, I let the rice cook a bit longer so that the liquid is completely absorbed.
I gather some rice and form a ball in the palm of my hand and then I make a small indentation.
I place a cube of fresh mozzarella in the indentation.
I carefully close up the ball (use some more rice if needed) and mold it gently with my hands until I have a round rice ball.
Once all the rice balls are done, I bread them by dipping them first in egg and then in bread crumbs. I line all my rice balls up on a tray lined with waxed paper.
Using canola oil or vegetable oil, I fry the rice balls, browning them until they are golden on all sides.
I drain them on paper towels, making sure to sprinkle just a bit of sea salt over them as soon as they come out of the frying pan. I let them cool slightly, and the I dig in.
Arancini, My Way
Makes 20 to 25 arancini depending on how big you make them (mine are about 2 inches in diameter).
Note: I always use homemade chicken stock, which I salt. As a result, I do not put salt in the rice as I cook it because the stock is salty enough. I usually make the rice the night before and let it sit in the refrigerator. I find the cold rice much easier to handle. I also make these relatively small (never larger than 2 inches in diameter). When forming the rice balls, I find it’s a good idea to keep a large bowl of water close by to rinse your hands. The starch in the rice can sometimes make your hands very sticky. Some people like to serve these with tomato sauce but I like them simply, on their own. Leftover rice balls can be kept well-wrapped at room temperature or you can store them in the refrigerator and reheat them.
8 cups prepared chicken stock (homemade is best, of course)
1 cup arborio rice
20 to 25 1/2-inch cubes of mozzarella (preferably fresh)
2 cups bread crumbs
sea salt, to taste
Place the chicken stock in a pot and heat gently so that it’s hot, but not simmering or boiling. Make sure that the pot is close to the pan that you will cook the rice in.
In a wide, shallow pan, drizzle in a few teaspoons of olive oil and then heat over medium heat for a minute or so.
Add the uncooked rice to the pan and sautÃ© for two minutes, stirring constantly. You don’t want to burn the rice but you do want to toast it slightly.
Add two cups of chicken stock to the rice. The rice should be covered by the stock. Keep the heat on medium, unless you notice that the stock begins to boil. If that’s the case, lower the heat. You want it to simmer gently, but not boil.
Stir the rice occasionally, ensuring that it doesn’t stick. Keep doing this until the rice has absorbed almost all the chicken stock.
When the rice looks almost dry, add another two cups of chicken stock and repeat the process. Stir occasionally to ensure that it’s not sticking.
At this point, taste the rice. It will still be slightly firm, but you should notice that it’s beginning to soften.
Once it looks dry again, add two more cups of chicken stock.
Cook until the stock has been absorbed. Taste the rice again. By this point it should be almost cooked. At this stage, you want to ease up on how much stock you add. If the rice is still a bit undercooked, just add another cup of stock and keep cooking.
Once the rice is done (it’s soft and plump), cook it until the liquid is absorbed (but be careful not to burn it).
Take the rice off the heat and let it cool to room temperature (or refrigerate overnight).
Once you’re ready to make the rice balls, have your mozzarella cubes in a plate close to where you’re working.
Form the rice balls by gathering a bit of rice in your hand and forming an indentation in the centre. Place a mozzarella cube in the indentation and close the rice over it. If necessary, pick up some more rice to cover the mozzarella cube. Place the rice ball in a plate.
As you form the rice balls, if your hands get sticky, just rinse them in a bit of water and continue.
Once all the rice balls are formed, beat your eggs in a large, shallow plate. Place the bread crumbs in another plate and begin breading by dipping the rice balls first in the egg and then rolling them in the bread crumbs.
In a large frying pan, heat about two inches of canola or vegetable oil. When it’s hot enough (test it by throwing in some bread crumbs – if they start to sizzle you’re good-to-go), place four or five of the rice balls in the pan. Don’t overcrowd them or they won’t fry up nicely.
Gently turn the rice balls so that they fry evenly on all sides. This should take four to five minutes.
Once they’re done, remove them to a plate lined with paper towel and immediately sprinkle with a tiny bit of sea salt.
Serve these hot or at room temperature.