Spinach Arancini: Arancini agli Spinaci

Spinach Arancini:  Arancini agli Spinaci

Arancini are stuffed rice balls.  They are a popular street food in Sicily.  The most traditional fillings are tomato ragù and cheese with ham.  I heard about how popular Arancini Bros. have become in my home town of New York.  They have a huge array of fillings and flavors.  They have taken the art of arancini making to another level.  Kudos to them!  They were my inspiration in making this recipe.  I wanted a spinach arancini with a gooey, creamy melted cheese middle and a crunchy crumb coating.

Besciamella is the Italian name for the French béchamel white sauce and the creamy filling for these arancini.  Thanks to Catherine de’ Medici, credited with having introduced it to Italy, béchamel is a popular sauce in Italian cuisine, as well as in French cuisine.  The filling includes ham and provolone cheese, which is similar to mozzarella cheese in that it become gooey and stringy when heated.  Panko bread crumbs gives these arancini a superb crunchy coating.  If you’re a traditionalist – use regular breadcrumbs, if you must.

I’m sure you’ll agree that the time spent making them is well worth it.  Make a double batch!  One to eat right away because they won’t last long and one to freeze.  They freeze well and the breadcrumbs won’t get soggy.

SPINACH ARANCINI: ARANCINI AGLI SPINACI

Difficulty Rating: Medium
Makes 8 to 10 arancini.

For the Arancini:
2 cups Arborio or Vialone Nano rice
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1 (8-ounce) package fresh spinach
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 eggs
Light olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
1 to 2 ounces of ham, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
2 to 3 ounces Provolone cheese, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
Salt and pepper

For the Besciamella Sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch grated nutmeg
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

For Breading:
1 1/2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
3/4 cup al-purpose flour
3 eggs, beaten

1. COOK THE RICE:  Line the bottom of a sheet pan with parchment paper or grease with olive oil.  Place 4 cups of water, salt, and saffron in a large sauce pan and bring to a boil.  Stir in rice, cover pan with a lid and reduce heat to low.  Cook rice for 15 to 20 minutes, until rice is just tender and water is absorbed.  Be careful not to overcook the rice.  Using a wooden spoon stir in the pecorino cheese and continue stirring for an additional minute so that the rice becomes a little creamy.  Spread the rice mixture evenly onto the greased baking sheet.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours, until completely cold.

2. MAKE THE BESCIAMELLA (BECHAMEL) SAUCE:  Heat milk to lukewarm in the microwave or in a small saucepan on the stovetop.  Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add the flour and stir until smooth.  Cook until mixture bubbles and turns a light golden color.  Gradually whisk in the milk.  When mixture begins to bubble reduce heat to low.  Stir in nutmeg and salt, and season with pepper.  Continue stirring constantly, to prevent lumps from forming, and cook until thick, about 4-5 minutes.  Place mixture in a small heat-proof bowl and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on top to prevent a skin from forming.  Refrigerate until ready to use.

3. COOK THE SPINACH:  Line a colander with a clean, lint-free, dish towel.  Heat olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.  Add spinach leaves and cook until just wilted, about 3-4 minutes.  Season with salt.

Transfer the spinach into the colander and let drain until cool.  With the spinach in the middle of the dish towel, gather the towel in to make a bundle.  Standing over the sink, twist the towel and wring out as much water as you can from the spinach, until almost dry.  Chop the spinach.

4. MAKE THE ARANCINI:  Combine the rice, spinach, eggs, and grated cheese in a large bowl.  Season with salt and pepper.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Using a large ice cream/cookie scoop, scoop the rice mixture, level with the top of the scoop, place on the cookie sheet.  Repeat with making individual mounds of rice with remaining rice mixture.

Have ready a large platter or baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Place the breadcrumbs, flour, and eggs in individual bowls.

Place one of the rice mounds in the palm of your hand, make a bowl-like indentation in the middle of the rice mixture.  Place and spoonful of besciamella sauce and a few pieces of ham and provolone in the middle.

Cover with another mound of rice and gently press together to form a ball.

Dredge each rice ball first in flour and then coat in egg.

Finally, coat arancini with panko crumbs, gently pressing them in.  Place the arancini on the platter and let sit for 20 minutes before frying.

5. FRY THE ARANCINI:  Heat olive oil, to a depth of 2-inches, in a large sauce pan over medium heat until a deep-fry thermometer registers 270 – 275 degrees F.  Fry the arancini in batches until golden brown, about 10 minutes.  Drain on paper towels.  Heat remaining besciamella sauce and serve with the arancini.

Freezing Tip:  Arancini freeze well.  Cool completely after frying and place in plastic freezer bags.  Defrost before heating in oven on a baking sheet.

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