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The Spice Merchant's Arancini


Arancini (“little oranges”) are one of the most beloved examples of Southern Italian “street food”. Perfect to recycle risotto leftovers, they consist of meat- or cheese-stuffed rice balls coated with breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Arancini are very similar to a specialty found in Naples and Rome, suppli’ – more elongated tomato risotto croquettes filled with mozzarella. Arancini are said to have originated in 10th century Sicily, which at the time was under Arab rule ( an experience which is still reflected in the island’s food, particularly the decadent desserts). So I thought it would be fun to combine them with another famous Sicilian dish, Caponata (now available ready made from Sabra) which, like the saffron, highlights a different influence on the Sicilian cuisine, that of Spain. Add some cumin, mint, and a the unique rich flavor of lamb, and you have a dish that is at the same time authentically Italian and reminiscent of North Africa and the Middle East. Buon appetito!

  • Duration
  • Cook Time
  • Prep Time
  • 10-14 ServingsServings


For The Rice Mixture

  • 1 package (1 pound) Italian risotto rice (Arborio or carnaroli)
  • 1 teaspoon saffron stems or 1/2 teaspoon saffron powder (or more to taste)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 to 2 quarts good meat or chicken stock, hot
  • 2 tablespoons mild extra-virgin olive oil or sesame oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

For The Filling

  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1/2 onion, very finely minced or grated
  • 1/2 cup dry white or red wine
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon freshly minced mint
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 2 8 oz. containers Sabra caponata
  • salt and pepper to taste

For Dredging

  • Plain bread crumbs
  • 3 eggs

For Frying

  • 1 bottle light olive oil or sesame oil


1. In a non-stick or enameled cast iron pot, pour about 1 quart of boiling stock over the unrinsed the rice (or just enough to cover the rice). Bring to a boil, lower the heat and allow to cook for about 18 minutes or until ready, stirring occasionally and adding more hot stock only if all is absorbed and the rice tends to stick to the bottom.

2. In the meantime, brew the saffron stems in a couple of tablespoons of hot stock, and add the saffron mixture to the rice towards the end of the cooking.

3. When the rice is cooked, adjust the salt and add some pepper and 1 1/2 to 2 tbsp oil. Remove from the heat and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

4. Now pour in the egg yolks and incorporate them quickly.

5. Cover, and transfer into the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

6. In the meantime, prepare the ragout: heat 1 tbsp oil in a skillet; add the grated onion and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the lamb and brown (breaking down the ground meat with a large fork or a specific tool – I like the Chopstir Nylon Chopper). Pour in the wine and allow it to evaporate on higher heat. Turn down the heat and cook on medium for about 30 minutes. In the last 5 minutes, add the pine nuts and cumin and adjust the salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and set aside.

7. Drain the caponata through a sieve or slotted spoon, removing most of its liquid.

8. Combine the caponata with the lamb ragout, and the freshly minced mint.

9. Now comes the fun part. Keep a bowl of cold water (or the faucet) right by your side. Wet your hands slightly, and pick up a small handful of rice mixture with your weaker hand. Cup your hand and press the rice creating a concave container for the filling. With the other hand, place a teaspoon of the lamb/caponata mixture, and press it into the rice you are holding; now take a little more rice and press it on top of the filling, closing the arancino. Roll in your hands until you get a nice round shape, the size of a small or medium orange and set aside on an aluminum or parchment-lined tray. Proceed like this with the rest of the rice and filling.

10. When you are done, slightly beat the remaining 3 eggs in a shallow platter. Fill another shallow platter with bread crumbs. Dip the arancini in the eggs and dredge them in bread crumbs, rolling them to perfect roundness.

11. Deep-fry in at least 1 1/2  to 2 inches of oil (best to use a pot with taller sides so they won’t splatter) at about 350 F until golden and crispy (about 5 or 6 minutes). Don’t make the mistake to use less oil, because placing the cold arancini in a small quantity of oil will lower the oil temperature too much, yielding a very greasy result. Don’t drop them into the hot oil, they are heavy and you could splatter yourself! Rather, lower them gently into the oil using a slotted spoon. Fry on higher heat for the first minute or two, and complete the cooking on medium heat. Turn after about 3 minutes. When they are ready, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon, and drain them well on a triple layer of paper towel. Serve hot or warm!

NOTE: Arancini keep well in the fridge for a couple of days and reheat well (uncovered or only partially covered to maintain crunchiness). However, they cannot be frozen because the rice will dry out.

TIP: do not wash the rice or just give it a quick rinse! You need to preserve the starches that coat the rice.