Ever heard of arancini? If you've grown up in a Germanic-speaking country, chances are you think I am talking about candied peel here, but I am not. I am referring to the Sicilian dumplings that are so called because their colour reminds one of an orange.
The last time I had some was at a rather special evening dedicated to Italian rice and like so many times, we were told that arancini are made from left-over risotto. I bet you have heard this before and I cannot help but think this is an urban myth that has been perpetuated over the centuries, but bears little relation to reality.
By show of hands: who has ever come across left-over risotto? The only instances where my family would not eat their risotto up is if it didn't taste good (overcooked rice, too dry, bad ingredients), in which case frying might help to mask the taste a little, but wouldn't really make the spoilt rice into something as delicious as these glistening balls stuffed with lava-hot melting goodness you're craving.
I maintain that it's a nice theory to be able to use left-overs, but it hardly ever happens. At least not in my house. But then, I love a good dumpling, even more so if it is stuffed with cheese, crunchy on the outside, gooey and exploding with flavour inside - but making risotto from scratch just to drown it in hot oil doesn't seem like a feasible idea as it would a) take too long and b) feel like a waste of a perfectly good dish...
What about polenta, then? It's readily available, put together in a flash and also much less temperamental than rice when you roll it. Stuffed with some hard cheese or diced ham (I have tried parma, but find that uncooked ham acquires a funny flavour when you deep-fry or heat it) or porcini mushrooms, these dumplings are a real treat and very difficult to resist.
Being Austrian, I have rolled many a dumpling in my life - if you're a bit apprehensive about making them, here are some useful tips for dumpling rolling, a handy guide that can be applied to any dumpling, really:
- Start out by making small round patties out of whichever dough your using. Sit the filling in the middle, gently roll the dough up on the sides and over the top, squeezing just enough to make it slide without the cheese running for its life at the other end.
- Roll the dumplings softly, but determinedly, between the palms of your flat hands until they're evenly round. If you apply too much force, the dough won't spread evenly, but if you don't show the dough who's boss, it'll get all sloppy and won't keep the cheese in the centre. The trick is to move your hands quite fast.
- The dough might be quite sticky and that's a good thing - if you feel you cannot tame it at all, moisten your hands, making sure they're not dripping wet, and roll them in that way. Be sure not to make the dough too wet, though, or there'll be a lot of hot oil splattering about the kitchen and the dough won't hold its shape.
- When frying dumplings, the hot oil : dumpling ratio is essential. You need to make sure not to overcrowd your pan or the temperature of the oil will drop too much - the dumplings need to fry rapidly or they risk disintegrating. I fry these dumplings in batches of 5 - 6 in a 28 cm frying pan.
Try these for your next dinner party as a nibble to accompany your aperitif or even as a starter, with a herb salad on the side. With this handy guide and a bit of practice, you'll be a dumpling roller par excellence in no time!
Polenta dumplings stuffed with cheese
80 g easy-cook polenta*
1 handful chopped sage (optional)
2 tbsp polenta for rolling
16 dice of cheese, Gruyère, Comté etc (about 1 - 1.5 cm)
(alternatively, use diced cooked ham or re-hydrated porcini mushrooms as a filling)
oil for frying
good, home-made tomato sauce for dipping
To prepare the polenta, check the package instructions. Take only half of the stated liquid and use half milk, half stock to make it creamier. (In my case, I would have needed 500 ml liquid for 80 g, so I only used 250 ml, 125 ml stock, 125 ml milk).
Heat the liquid with the polenta, constantly stirring, until you have a thick, gluey paste. In the case of easy-cook, this will take about a minute or two. Polenta has the tendency to spit like lava if left unattended, so the constant stirring is vital! If using, add the chopped sage or other herbs at the end.
LEAVE UNTIL COOL ENOUGH TO HANDLE WITH YOUR BARE HANDS. Plunging the pot in ice-cold water about half-way up the sides and continuing to stir does a world of wonders.
When the polenta has cooled down, take about 1 tbsp full at a time, making small round patties. Sit the cheese cube in the middle, gently roll up on the sides and over the top, squeezing just enough to make the dough slide without the cheese escaping at the other end. Then roll softly, but determinedly between the palms of your flat hands until they're evenly round. If you apply too much force, the dough won't spread evenly, but if you don't show the dough who's boss, it'll get all sloppy and won't keep the cheese in the centre.
The dough will be quite sticky and that's a good thing - if you feel you cannot tame it at all, moisten your hands making sure they're not dripping wet, and roll them in that way. Be sure not to make the dough too wet or there'll be a lot of hot oil splattering about the kitchen and the dough won't hold its shape. Make sure you haven't got any edges of cheese sticking out, or you'll end up with empty dumplings and all the cheese in the pan.
The minute you have an evenly round dumpling, roll it gently in some polenta so it's fully covered - then set aside while you make the other dumplings.
Heat some oil in a frying pan until it is very hot - it should reach about half-way up the dumplings.
You need to make sure not to overcrowd your pan, or the temperature of the oil will drop too much - the dumplings need to fry rapidly or they risk disintegrating. I fry them in batches of 5 - 6 dumplings in a 28 cm frying pan.
Turn them frequently so they seal quickly and brown evenly - using 2 tbsp, gentle nudges will suffice.
If you see any spots where some cheese is starting to come out, make sure these holes stay on top to prevent the filling from escaping. This usually only happens about half-way through the frying process, so the dumplings will be cooked enough, even if they're lacking colour.
Drain on some kitchen towel and serve while still hot, with the sauce on the side.
* I used Sole Umbro polenta al tartufo, but plain is just as good.