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Arancine

A trip to Sicily is eye-opening in so many senses, including its scenic seaside, mountainous interior, and numerous archeological sites. But Sicilian food is also sensational, including the plethora of street foods that you find in Palermo.

Arancine – stuffed and fried rice balls – are among my favorites . They’re so named because the round shape is reminiscent of an small orange, or an arancina (the singular). However, in some parts of Sicily, particularly the eastern part of the island, they’re called by the masculine noun – arancini. That could be because in the Sicilian dialect, the word for orange is aràncìu, which is masculine, like arancino (singular of arancini). You’re also more likely to find them in a conical, not spherical shape, in the eastern part of the island.

However you call them, these delicious delicacies date back to the 10th century, when Sicily was under Arab dominion, and saffron was introduced to the island. Saffron is used to flavor the rice in this recipe.

The most common type of arancina is stuffed with a meat ragù and peas, but variations abound, including my favorite, with cheese and ham as the center. The addition of béchamel, added after the béchamel has been chilled overnight and you’re able to spoon it, makes the filling even more gooey and melted after it comes out of the fryer.

We set to work making them under the guidance of Chef Michael Sampson, at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school, and started by wetting our hands in water to make shaping a little easier. Like the béchamel, the rice had been cooked and cooled ahead of time too.

After you’ve spread and flattened some rice on your hands, place some béchamel, a bit of cheese and bits of ham in the center, then use your fingers and hands to shape the rice into a sphere. Keep working it, and adding a bit more rice, if necessary, to close any gaps.

Then roll it gently into a combination of bread crumbs and flour.

Fry in hot oil until browned.

Wait a few minutes to bite into it so you don’t burn your mouth.

Bet you can’t eat just one!

 

Arancine
 
Author:
Cuisine: Sicilian
 
Ingredients
  • cold, cooked arborio rice to which you have added some saffron, a little parmesan cheese and butter and salt to taste.
  • For the Béchamel Sauce:
  • 2½ tablespoons of butter (40 grams)
  • ⅓ cup flour (40 grams)
  • 1 cup milk (1/2 liter)
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • ½ cup parmesan cheese (50 grams)
  • To stuff the center of the arancine:
  • provola or mozzarella cheese, cut into small cubes
  • small bits of ham (prosciutto cotto or cooked ham)
  • bread crumbs
  • hot oil to fry the arancine
  • 00 flour (or regular flour)
Instructions
  1. Prepare the cooked rice ahead of time and leave it to cool.
  2. To make the béchamel:
  3. Melt the butter and add the flour. Cook the two together a couple of minutes until sizzly, then add the milk until you get the consistency you want. Then add salt, pepper and parmesan cheese. It should be on the thick side, and it's best if you let it rest in the refrigerator overnight.
  4. Spread a large spoonful of the cooked rice in the palm of your hand. It helps if you wet your hands first.
  5. Take a spoonful of the béchamel and some of the diced ham and provoke or mozzarella cheese and place in the center of the rice that you have spread out in your other hand.
  6. Using your fingers and palm, shape the rice around the filling, into a sphere, covering all the filling.
  7. Roll the shaped arancina in a mixture of half breadcrumbs and half semolina flour.
  8. Fry in oil about 190 degrees until browned on the outside.
 

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Cannoli with ricotta

Among other things, Sicily is famous for cannoli, those crunchy, ricotta filled delicacies that are ubiquitous in Palermo and throughout the island. So it was only natural that we would be making them in one of our classes at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school.

I have a real weakness for cannoli and there are plenty of good ones to be had near where I live in the Northeast U.S., but I never buy a cannolo (singular of cannoli) that’s already filled, unless it’s done right in front of me. There’s nothing worse than a soggy cannolo shell. (Well, actually there are plenty of worse things, but you get the point.) Eating a soggy cannolo is just not worth the calories.

But eating them in Sicily with sweet, creamy fresh sheep’s milk ricotta that was just made, and shells that were crunchy yet tender,  well, that’s a whole different ball game.

Don’t be afraid to make them at home. I made them for the first time decades ago, when I was a neophyte in the kitchen, and they’re not hard at all. If you can make pasta, you can make cannoli. It’s a similar procedure. You do need metal tubes to shape them, however, or if you’re handy with a saw, you can make your own forms from wooden dowels.

By the way, for the word nerds out there, the word cannolo is a diminutive of the Italian word “canna,” which means “reed” or “tube.” There’s a famous Italian book called “Canne Al Vento,” (“Reeds in the Wind”) written by the only Italian woman to win a Nobel prize in literature —  Grazia Deledda.

But back to the cannoli directions. The first thing to do is mix the dough, then knead it, and run it through a pasta machine at increasingly thin settings. If you’re a real purist and you’ve got strong arms, you can roll it by hand with a rolling pin.

Then cut it into circle shapes, using either a large circle cutter, or use a small plate as a template and cut around the perimeter with a knife. Then roll around the metal or wooden form, sealing with some water, overlapping slightly.

Fry them in hot oil until golden brown, using an oil with little flavor, like peanut or canola oil.

Drain and cool them, then fill with the ricotta and chocolate chip mixture. You can use a small spoon to do this, but if you have a large quantity, a pastry bag speeds things along.

Serve with a sprinkle of powdered sugar, and bits of candied orange peel and/or chopped pistachios, and watch them disappear.

Cannoli con Ricotta
 
Author:
 
Ingredients
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 4 tsp. lard
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • pinch of fine sea salt
  • ¼ cup vinegar or wine, or as needed
  • 1 egg, lighten beaten, for egg wash
  • vegetable oil, for flying
  • Ricotta Cream
  • 1½ cups whole-milk ricotta, preferably sheep's milk
  • ½ cup sugar, or to taste
  • chocolate chips, optional
  • candied orange peel, chopped pistachios, to garnish
Instructions
  1. Make the cannoli shells:
  2. Combine the flour, lard, sugar, sauce and slat in a bowl and mix together with your hands.
  3. Add the vinegar, bit by bit, and knead until the dough comes together. The dough should be quite stiff.
  4. Set a pasta machine to the widest setting.
  5. Take a piece of dough and run it through the machine 7 to 10 times at that setting, folding the dough in half each time before rolling it again.
  6. When the dough is very even, continue to roll it through the machine, once at each setting without folding, until you reach the next to last setting. (The dough should be very even and silky).
  7. Lay the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and with a lightly floured 4 inch cookie cutter, cut out rounds (use a small plate as a template if you don't have a cookie cutter)
  8. Wrap the dough rounds around metal or wooden cannoli molds, dab the edge with egg, and press to seal.
  9. Repeat with the remaining dough, retooling the scraps.
  10. Heat 2 inches of oil in a wide, heavy pot over medium high heat.
  11. Add the cannoli shells in batches and fry until the shells have become bubbly, crisp, and browned, 4 to 5 minutes.
  12. With tongs, transfer to paper towels to drain.
  13. Cool and remove the molds carefully.
  14. To Make the ricotta cream:
  15. Beat together the ricotta and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add the chocolate chips, if desired. With a small spoon, fill the cannoli shells, then decorate with the candied orange peel and pistachios, and dust with powdered sugar.
 

Eggplant Involtini

 Eggplant wrapped around mozzarella or ricotta cheese is what I used to think of whenever I made eggplant involtini. But after my week of cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily, where I learned to make this unusual and delicious dish of pasta snuggled inside eggplant slices, you can bet that this version will be in regular rotation in our house.

It’s one of those dishes that wows with its unusual looks, tastes fabulous and can be made in advance. Who could ask for more?

Start by frying some sliced eggplant in oil, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Cook some angel hair pasta and toss with tomato sauce and grated parmesan cheese. Make sure it’s very al dente, since it will cook further in the oven.

Now place some of that pasta on top of an eggplant slice.

Then roll the slice of eggplant around the pasta. Don’t worry if the pasta peeks through holes in the eggplant. It’s all going to get covered in sauce.

Place the rolls seamside down into an ovenproof pan.

Cover with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese.

Bake in the oven and top with more parmesan cheese (or ricotta salata) before serving.

Serve one involtino as a first course, or two as a main course.

The eggplant involtini were just one of four courses we ate each night, after prepping and cooking everything under chef Michael’s guidance. Some things were already prepared, like the cured olives and artichokes sott’olio we enjoyed with some bubbly from the nearby winery one night.

The ingredients for nearly everything we consumed were grown on the property, or nearby, including the olives, artichokes, lemons, bergamot, almonds and pistachios.

lettuces and fennel

artichokes in the garden.

lentil plants

Wild fennel was in season, so it was abundant at this time of year and we ate it raw in salads and cooked in frittatas.

Bergamot was sliced thinly into salad and tasted nothing like a lemon, which it resembles, but was much sweeter, even the fleshy white part.

Pamela (a charming young woman from England, and the only other participant the week I was there) and I sat down to dinner each night at the large kitchen table to share the fruits of our labors with owner Fabrizia, her husband, chef Michael, gardener Hans, office manager Henna and others who were passing through.

Together with the delicious food, conversation flowed along with the perfectly paired wines from Tenuta Regaliali, the winery on the property. Stay tuned for more about that in further posts.

Eggplant Involtini
 
Author:
Serves: Serves 10 (2 per person)
 
Ingredients
  • 5 large eggplants
  • vegetable oil for frying
  • 2-3 cups (500-750 ml) good quality well-seasoned tomato sauce (not tomato puree)
  • 12 oz. (300 grams) angel hair pasta
  • parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • ricotta salata (optional)
  • fresh basil, mint, or oregano
  • olive oil
Instructions
  1. Slice eggplants about ½ inch think.
  2. Deep fry in a large pan of oil, flipping halfway through, until deep golden.
  3. Drain on paper towels.
  4. Cook angel hair pasta in well salted boiling water for 1 minute (must be very al dente because if will cook further in the oven).
  5. Toss with plenty of tomato sauce and grated Parmesan.
  6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  7. Cover the bottom of a large, ceramic baking pan with more tomato sauce and some olive oil.
  8. Take one eggplant slice and place a small bunch of pasta in the middle and roll up.
  9. Place in pan seaside down and repeat with remaining eggplants and pasta, packing rolls snugly into pan.
  10. Cover with more tomato sauce and Parmesan.
  11. Tuck leaves of fresh herbs between the rolls
  12. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until cheese is melted and everything is warm.
  13. Optional: Top with more grated Parmesan or ricotta salata cheese.