One kid's adventures in gastronomy

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Just don’t call them “arancini”

…because then I will not want to eat them. Now, “rice balls,” on the other hand, is so much more appealing. After all, we enjoy the idea of a food before the first bite ever reaches our mouths. Or so I’m told.

Take the little rice ball, for example. What 3-year-old worth his salt wouldn’t want to make one of those? As the name implies, arancini (Italian for “little oranges”) are little balls of rice that are breaded then fried or baked. (Often they’re made with saffron, and that, coupled with their orangish hue once breaded & fried, lends them their name.)

We happened to have leftover squash risotto, and Mama thought I might enjoy making the little balls with her. First, we set up our breading station, which includes a dish of flour, a beaten egg, and a dish of bread crumbs. I crack all the eggs in this house now.

"I didn't even break the yolk."

“I didn’t even break the yolk.”

The flour helps the egg stick to the rice ball, and the egg helps the bread crumbs stay put.

The flour helps the egg stick to the rice ball, and the egg helps the bread crumbs stay put.

And I also insist on beating the egg with a fork.

I took this photo myself.

I took this picture myself.

After this, I lost interest. I didn’t want to messy my hands in the cold risotto. Instead of helping, I raided the fridge.

Papa bough contraband strawberries out of season, much to my delight!

Papa bought contraband strawberries out of season, much to my delight!

Mama said we have to get all the balls formed before we begin the breading process, because we’re just going to get our fingers even messier once that starts.

Now we're set to start covering up those naked little rice balls with crunchy bread crumbs.

Now we’re set to start covering up those naked little rice balls with crispy bread crumbs.

To bread a ball, gently roll it in the flour, then roll it in the egg (allowing excess to drip off), then roll it in the bread crumbs. Set aside. (You don’t want to start putting them in the hot oil as you make them because they’ll cook unevenly.) Once Mama set the frying pan of oil over medium heat, she shooed me from the kitchen. But I could hear those rice balls sizzling, and the house smelled good.

Incidentally, that little scarecrow on the plate is me!

That’s a side of balsamic-roasted asparagus and portabella mushrooms.

I was eager to try one of those little guys. I really was. But to Mama’s dismay, I did not love them. I took my “no thank you” bite, said, “They are not bad,” and passed on any more. They had a nice crunch with a warm, soft center, but what can I say? I told Mama to stop calling them arancini.

Love, Jude

Arancini (“Rice Balls”)
(You totally don’t need a recipe for this, but here’s something to get you started.)

Cold risotto (plain or with “stuff” in it; we had about 1 or 2 servings left over)
2 eggs, divided (1 optional)
Bread crumbs (we tend to use panko, but use whatever you have on hand)
Canola or olive oil

Make the arancini whatever size you like, from Ping-Pong to a bit larger than golf ball size. Press the mixture into your palms, and gently form a ball. (If you’re finding that your mixture isn’t holding together well enough, lightly beat an egg and thoroughly mix it in to the rice, then try again.) Set balls aside.

Prepare 3 bowls or shallow dishes for a breading station: 1 with flour, 1 with a lightly beaten egg, and 1 with bread crumbs. Season each with salt and pepper.

Roll a ball completely in the flour, then the egg (allowing excess to drip off), then the bread crumbs. Set aside and repeat until all balls are crumbed.

Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a large skillet over medium heat. Toss a few flecks of flour into it—if they sizzle, it’s ready. Carefully add the arancini. Do not overcrowd. (Work in batches, if necessary.) Fry until golden, then turn until golden on all sides (just a couple minutes). If they’re getting overly dark, lower the heat slightly. Remove to a plate lined with paper towel. They’re hot, so be careful!

Note: Mama says some people press a tiny bit of filling inside the little ball, whether that’s ham or cooked sausage or chopped mushrooms. Experiment and have fun. (On this Mardi Gras Tuesday, maybe you can make a play on king cake and hide a petite plastic baby in one. That would be so silly!)


It’s risotto night!

Full disclosure: I love orange foods.

Sweet potatoes, oranges, squash, mangoes …. if it’s orange, you can likely bet I’ll eat it. There have been many times when orange foods saved the day as the only thing I’d eat. (People often ask Mama where I get my “tan” from; she just says it’s “all that beta-carotene.”) My favorite is when Mama bakes acorn or butternut squash and sweet potatoes or yams and serves it mashed with butter, coconut milk, or coconut oil and cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and/or nutmeg. This preparation was one of the first things I could feed myself.

Mushrooms, though, are another story. I’ve had them, and I can’t say that I much care for them. Mama sautés them in olive oil and butter so they’re good and golden (she says the secret is in letting them alone and not seasoning them until they’re nearly done). Her “go to” mushroom is cremini, or “baby bella,” but I notice that she often uses shiitake and other funky fungi. She rarely uses white button mushrooms, and I can’t blame her as they just sound icky.

Tonight, Mama’s frying up some mushrooms and roasting butternut squash for her risotto. Some people think risotto’s complicated to make, but not Mama. She says it’s just a matter of timing and having everything ready to go. So the squash was already in the oven, and the mushrooms were sizzling on the stove, even before she chopped her onion. Mama also notes that a cook shouldn’t be a slave to the risotto, whatever that means. It must be a good thing because she has time to run around after me while it’s cooking. That said, she doesn’t let her risotto dry out. She keeps her stock hot, and adds it to the rice before it starts to stick to the pan. Risotto’s supposed to be creamy, without the addition of cream.

I’d be lying if I said I devoured it right off the bat. A baby gets to be finicky from time to time. But after a few bites of luscious, flavorful rice and sweet squash, Mama slipped a mushroom onto my spoon. And I ate it. The next one too. And the one after that. In fact, I had a small second helping of risotto. I had to dump it out of my bowl and onto the tray of my highchair in order to eat it, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes. You win another one, Mama.

Love, Jude

Butternut Squash and Wild Mushroom Risotto

(Mama makes her risotto “by feel,” so amounts are approximate)

½ medium butternut squash, peeled and chopped into ½”-1″ cubes

Olive oil, to coat

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 Tbsp (each) olive oil and butter

8-12 ounces assorted mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (or chopped)

1 quart (or so) chicken or vegetable stock

1 medium white or yellow onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsp (each) olive oil and butter

½-1 cup dry white wine (optional)

1 cup (or so) Arborio rice

Handful or 2 of baby spinach (optional)

Minced fresh sage (optional)

Parmesan cheese (wedge, not canned)

Preheat oven to 400°. Toss the squash in a shallow roasting pan or cookie sheet with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast until tender, 15-20 minutes. (Stir once during baking.)

Meanwhile, heat the Tbsp oil and butter in a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sauté the mushrooms until browned. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat.

Bring the stock to a simmer.

Heat the 2 Tbsp oil and butter in a large frying pan (with sides) or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Add the rice and stir to combine. Let the rice cook a few minutes, stirring if necessary to prevent it from sticking or the onions from burning.

Add a ladleful of stock to the rice. (It will send up a cloud of steam!) Add the wine, if using. Now you just watch it, off and on, for about 20 minutes or so. Stir the rice and let it absorb the liquid—not all the way. You don’t want a dry pan. But dry enough. Add another ladleful of stock, stir, and keep an eye on it. Go make a salad or pour yourself a glass of the wine. If you really don’t want to be tied to the risotto, add 2 ladles of stock at a time.

Taste the rice. It should have an ever-so-slight bite to it. Then it’s done. (But if it’s completely soft, it’s not ruined.) Add your reserved mushrooms and squash, along with one more ladle of stock. (You might not use it all–or you might use more.) Throw in a couple handfuls of baby spinach and the sage, if desired. Grate the Parmesan over the pan (or use a Microplane), according to however much you like, and turn off the heat. Give it all a stir, give it a taste to adjust seasonings, and it’s done.

Note: Mama makes all kinds of risottos throughout the year. If you’re using vegetables (like sugar snap peas) or other foods (like shrimp) that cook very quickly, add them toward the end of the rice’s cooking time. You can also vary the kind of liquid you use, such as for a red wine risotto (which Mama has not given me, just so you know).