Author Guest Post: Catherine Banner’s Arancini

Special guest post from Catherine Banner, author of The House at the Edge of the Night

Arancini (which means literally ‘little oranges’) are one of Sicily’s most popular fast foods, sold in bars for a euro or two and probably the product, like a lot of street foods, of an inventive approach to leftover ingredients: small pieces of meat and peas, cooked risotto, and breadcrumbs. Although they are currently enjoying a moment of popularity in Italy, they have been around for a thousand years. Usually they are made with ragù (bolognese) and peas. My version is less traditional because the arancini are smaller than an orange (which means you can deep fry them in a saucepan) and they use cheese as a filling rather than meat, but you can find versions with mozzarella in bars and restaurants in Sicily too.

When I wrote about a fictional island off the coast of Sicily in The House at the Edge of Night, I knew that arancini would be one of the first things the local bar would serve its customers. But the arancini in the book represent more than just historical authenticity. They are also part of the story of how the bar sustains the community through periods of difficulty. During the war, Maria-Grazia, the daughter of the bar’s first owner, tries to find ways to continue to serve familiar foods with rationed ingredients, and ends up replacing the rice with rolled-up bread. Later, when tourists arrive and the bar begins to modernise, installing an expensive new coffee machine and ice-cream making equipment, familiar foods like arancini stay on the menu too.

Arancini, like the mythical island of Castellamare which I write about in the book, exist in an interesting space between cultures. Like a lot of Sicilian food, they could never have been invented without an unexpected collision of Italian, Arabic, and other Mediterranean influences. I first ate them almost a decade ago with my family-in-law in Sicily, and as a writer who works on the border between cultures, arancini have always made me feel at home.

My Recipe for Sicilian Arancini (My own version of a recipe from World Kitchen: Italy)

Large pinch of saffron
1 cup white wine
50g butter
50g olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed
750ml stock
2 tablespoons thyme
1 cup risotto rice
50g grated Parmesan cheese
100g mozzarella or fontina cheese
75g dried breadcrumbs
Oil, for deep frying

  1. Warm the stock in a small saucepan.
  2. Soak the saffron in the wine while you prepare the risotto. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and garlic, and cook over a low heat for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Add the thyme and rice to the onion and cook for one minute. Add the wine and saffron and stir until the rice has absorbed all of the wine. Add several ladles of the hot stock, stirring so that the rice cooks evenly. Keep adding just enough stock to cover the rice, stirring frequently, for about 20 minutes or until the rice is creamy and tender.
  4. Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan, then spread out onto a tray and leave to cool.
  5. To make the arancini, roll a small amount of risotto into a ball (this quantity makes twenty small or ten large arancini). Make a hole in the middle with your thumb, place a small piece of mozzarella or fontina cheese inside, and press the risotto around it. Repeat with the rest of the risotto. Roll each risotto ball in the breadcrumbs to coat.
  6. Deep fry the arancini in batches in a deep-fat fryer or high-sided pan for about 3-4 minutes, or until they are golden and crispy. Drain on paper towels and leave for a couple of minutes before eating.