Joe Vargetto has been educating people about modern Italian food from his parents’ homeland, Sicily, for two decades. The chef and restaurateur is best known in Melbourne for Kew institution Mister Bianco and CBD stalwart Massi, and his culinary journey is at the centre of his new cookbook, Siciliano.
As well as including recipes, the black leather-bound book tells the story of Vargetto’s life – including how he decided to go against his parents’ expectations of a career in law or accounting and pursue food instead.
While his restaurants specialise in fine dining, the chef has made the recipes in Siciliano work for home cooks – they cover everything from “lunchbox” dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs (inspired by his mother, to whom the book is dedicated) to antipasto, pasta, meats and dessert.
One of the most popular and versatile small dishes in the book is the crowd-pleasing arancine.
“Arancine are the Sicilian version of arancini,” Vargetto writes. “These always remind me of my aunty’s backyard kitchen. When she was making these you’d walk out there and smell the frying oil, a beautiful crisp, breadcrumb-y, saffron-y, rice smell. It always made my serotonin levels spike. To me, they smell of family get-togethers.”
These aren’t difficult to make, but the dish does benefit if you prepare the filling a day before cooking (so the balls don’t crumble and fall apart when fried).
Joe Vargetto’s Arancine
Makes about 50 balls
Preparation time: 50 minutes (plus overnight resting)
Cooking time: 40 minutes
450g beef mince
80ml olive oil
60g mixed minced onion, celery and carrot
500g thickened tomato sauce
100g mozzarella, finely chopped
3L chicken stock
40ml olive oil
500g Carnaroli rice
1 tbsp powdered saffron
150g grated parmesan
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
500g fine breadcrumbs
500g grated parmesan
5 eggs, whisked
salt and pepper
Prepare the filling for the arancine at least 1 day before you make the rice balls.
Cook the beef mince in a dry sauté pan, stirring to break it up, until lightly browned. Drain off the fat.
Place the olive oil and minced vegetables in a medium saucepan and sauté for 6–8 minutes, until soft and barely golden.
Add the cooked meat, peas and thickened tomato sauce and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, until sauce thickens. Refrigerate for use the next day. Once chilled, fold in the finely chopped mozzarella.
To make the rice, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Heat the olive oil and half the butter in a large saucepan and add the rice, stirring, until the grains are well-coated. Stir in the stock by the ladleful, waiting until each is absorbed before adding the next.
Add the saffron when the risotto has cooked for about 10 minutes. Continue to add the stock and stir until the risotto is smooth and creamy. There may be some stock left over, which you can refrigerate or freeze to use for another purpose. Allow the rice to cool, then add the parmesan and lightly beaten eggs.
Spoon out 60g of rice and place in your hand. Poke a small hole in one side and fill with meat/tomato filling to the equivalent of a tablespoon. Cover with rice and proceed to make the rest of the arancine. Once you have your fantastic little rice balls, dust in flour, roll in egg wash and then roll in the breadcrumbs. You’re ready for frying.
Heat 3 litres of canola oil in a deep fryer or a saucepan to 180°C. Fry the rice balls for about 3 minutes, moving them in the oil, until they are evenly cooked, crisp and deep golden on the outside. To test, insert and remove a metal skewer. If it feels warm, the rice ball is cooked. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.
Siciliano by Joe Vargetto is published by Melbourne Books ($49.95). You can buy it here.