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By the Book: Michael Chiarello’s Pesto Arancini Stuffed with Mozzarella

May 7th 02:05pm, 2013

In the late 1980s, I considered Martha Stewart to be the queen of entertaining. I was only in high school, but I owned her Christmas book and had grand plans that when I grew up, I’d do special “Martha things” – not just to holiday food but also to pine cones and holly berries. I would put on fabulous parties and everything would appear as effortless as Martha made them.

Within that 25-year time span, more books have been published on entertaining than I care to count. And, while my shelves are crammed so tightly that a bookseller would report abuse, I’m willing to cram a little more in order to make room for Michael Chiarello’s Bottega.

Why? Because there is some sound cooking going on in this impress-your-guests-cookbook-coffee table tome. Chiarello shares tricks that I hadn’t thought of; and his recipes are not too contrived, meaning, an able home cook can not only manage these dishes, she can expect to get that wow factor from guests that she secretly craves.

I enjoyed Bottega so much that I actually prepared three dishes from it: Fritto Misto di Calamari with Aioli Nero, Chicken Wings Agrodolce, and Pesto Arancini Stuffed with Mozzarella. All of them were good, but the arancini won in the all-around competition. So let’s chat about that.

Pesto adds loads of flavor to the arborio rice balls. Chiarello offers his own pesto recipe, but you can easily substitute your house version or mess with a sun-dried tomato pesto or an arugula-based one and still expect a great outcome. So, lesson No. 1: Think outside the box with arancini add-ins.

In his introduction for the recipe, Chiarello recounts a conversation with a Sicilian pal who fills the arancini with enough mozzarella to make the cheese “stretch like a telephone wire.” Yes, yes! This recipe calls for four ounces of cheese, but I agree with that Italian fellow: The more cheese you can encase inside the balls, the better.

Chiarello instructs to put the arancini in the freezer to let the balls firm up. This is a great idea and one that I plan to experiment on with falafel the next time that I make that Middle Eastern ball of garbanzo goodness.

The final cooking lesson came when I removed the rice balls from the freezer and was instructed to dredge them in flour, then beaten eggs and panko. A double-dredge of wheat? Smart. Once fried, the outer skin of the arancini was perfectly crisped; the inner, moist, chewy and melty with cheese.

This is a keeper of a recipe and Bottega is a keeper of a book. While I’m still working on effortless entertaining, in the meantime, maybe I need to switch to special “Michael things.”

Pesto Arancini Stuffed with Mozzarella
Makes 16 arancini; Serves 4

3 cups cooked arborio rice, cooled
1½ cups Blanched-Basil Pesto (Recipe follows; You will need to double the recipe.)
4 oz. fresh mozzarella, preferably bocconcini
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Peanut oil, corn oil or canola oil for frying

• Line a platter with parchment paper.
• In a large bowl, stir the rice and pesto together until blended. Divide the rice into 16 more-or-less-equal portions.
• Cut off about ½ teaspoon of mozzarella, and then, with your hands, ball up 1 serving of rice around the cheese so it’s completely encased in rice. Gently place on the prepared platter. Repeat to form 16 arancini.
• Slide the platter into the freezer for 30 minutes to allow the balls to firm.
• Before you take the rice balls from the freezer, set up your dredging station. Pour the flour into a shallow bowl, the eggs into another shallow bowl and the panko into a third shallow bowl.
• In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 inches of oil over medium-high heat until it registers 375 degrees on a deep-fat thermometer.
• While the oil heats, dredge each rice ball in flour and lightly shake off the excess.
• Dip each rice ball in the egg and then in the panko. Gently drop 4 to 6 balls into the oil and cook until lightly browned, 60 to 90 seconds. Don’t overcook or the cheese will leak out into the oil.
• Using a slotted spoon or wire skimmer, transfer the arancini to paper towels to drain. Repeat to cook the remaining arancini. Serve at once.

Chef’s note: If you like, you can fry the day before, refrigerate overnight and reheat with great success. To reheat, bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes.

Blanched-Basil Pesto
Makes about 1 cup

3 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
1 cup lightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
½ cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. pine nuts, toasted (see Chef’s note at bottom)
1 tsp. minced garlic
½ tsp. fine salt, preferably ground sea or gray salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/8 tsp. powdered ascorbic acid
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

• Set up a large bowl of ice water.
• Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil.
• Place the basil and parsley leaves in a sieve or colander that fits inside the pan. Lower the sieve full of herbs into the boiling water, and use a spoon to push the leaves under so the herbs cook evenly.
• Blanch for 15 seconds, then transfer the sieve to the ice bath to stop the cooking process. Let the herbs cool in the ice bath for 10 seconds.
• Remove the sieve, let drain, and then squeeze any water from the herbs. Transfer them to a cutting board and coarsely chop.
• In a blender, purée the herbs with the oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, pepper and ascorbic acid until well-blended and somewhat smooth.
• Add the cheese and whir for 1 second or so to mix.
• Transfer the pesto to a bowl; taste and adjust the seasoning.
• Press plastic wrap directly on top of the pesto to keep it from turning brown and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week, or freeze for it for up to 1 month.

Chef’s note: Toast pine nuts in a small dry skillet over low heat, shaking the pan frequently. Heat for just 1 to 2 minutes; as soon as you smell the fragrance of the pine nuts, slide the nuts out of the pan and onto a plate so they don’t burn.

Reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books.

What’s your favorite savory dish to make when cooking for a large group? Tell us about it in the comments section below for a chance to win a copy of Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. We’ll announce the winner in next week’s By the Book column.

And now, we’d like to congratulate Mark, whose comment on last week’s By the Book has won him a copy of Patisserie. Mark, keep an eye out for an email from the Sauce crew. 

By Ligaya Figueras

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4 Responses to “By the Book: Michael Chiarello’s Pesto Arancini Stuffed with Mozzarella”

  1. Hao Says:
    May 7th, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    my dad makes these amazing chicken wings. i think of them as “refried” wings because you deep fry them (to golden brown) and then stir fry them with chinese (pi xian dou ban) bean sauce and home make pickled ginger, chile, and garlic. finally, add some green onions and you have a delicious side dish. to go with rice or just eating it as an asian twist to standard wings. mmmmm….

  2. Julie Ridlon Says:
    May 7th, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Eggs Sardou with creamy spring spinach,poached orange yolked farm eggs, baby artichokes or asparagus, reduced cream with parmesan reggiano, and sometimes, if available sauteed morels. Makes for a great Sunday brunch for a crowd, whose components can be premade, assembled and warmed quickly. Great with aged gouda biscuits.

  3. Joe Says:
    May 8th, 2013 at 11:33 am

    I love to braise pork shoulder when cooking for a crowd. It lends itself to many different riffs depedning on mood and occasion and after prepping and throwing it in the oven to cook low and slow it is hands off for other tasks to prepare for the crowd. Warm weather is coming up so I forsee making a carolina style bbq sauce for pulled pork sandwiches with some fresh slaw!

  4. Katie Says:
    May 13th, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Frittatas. They lend themselves to a multitude of flavorings, particularly asparagus and Parmesan. Particularly with farm fresh eggs these are the best!

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