by Kaitlyn Goalen
photographs by Jillian Clark
They say patience is a virtue, but it’s never been one that I can claim. Nowhere is my shortcoming more apparent than in the kitchen. I’m always going to be one of those cooks that paces in front of the stove while something is cooking, daring to take a peek before it’s done. I’m always going to dread the wait between spring and summer, when the weather is warm but my favorite produce is still unripe on the vine.
Thankfully, it’s become something of a trend to cook with unripe, or “green” produce. It might seem like a head-scratcher: What, from a culinary perspective, would make unripe fruit attractive? It turns out that its tart flavor, when harnessed intentionally, can be a delicious boon to a cook. Unripe ingredients also have less moisture, which is ideal for things like pies or pickles. Unripe strawberries are a good example: They make excellent pickles, a fact which well-known chefs across the country have taken advantage of.
Of course here in the South, we’ve been ahead of the game as far as cooking with unripe fruit goes. Green tomatoes have long been a staple, even an icon, of Southern cuisine. While I can’t be sure, I like to think that fried green tomatoes are a holdover from our agrarian roots, a farmer’s way to use the tomatoes that fell from his vines too early.
I like fried green tomatoes as much as the next person, but green tomatoes have endless potential that deserves to be explored beyond that familiar dish. Green tomato pies are another old-school use for the fruit, and I’ve also experimented with green tomatoes as a base of a green gazpacho, capitalizing on their tart vegetal flavor.
But I’m particularly enamored with using them to stud Sicilian-style arancini, a type of cheesy, deep-fried rice ball that makes an amazing snack. It capitalizes on the green tomatoes’ adeptness for being fried, and pairs it with plenty of gooey mozzarella.
Green Tomato-Mozzarella Arancini
These are best eaten hot, straight from the fryer. After all, I’ve never been one for patience.
1½ cups Arborio rice
4 green tomatoes, cored and cut into quarters
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1 cup whole milk
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 teaspoon chopped oregano
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
3 eggs, divided
12 ounces whole milk mozzarella, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
Canola oil, for frying
In a medium saucepan, bring 6 cups salted water to a boil. Add the rice, lower to a simmer, and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain the rice and spread on a baking sheet in an even layer to cool.
Place the tomato quarters and 1 teaspoon salt in a food processor and pulse until chopped, but not completely pureed. Transfer the tomatoes to a fine-mesh sieve to drain; let drain for at least 20 minutes. Then, press down on the tomato mixture to drain any more excess juices.
Meanwhile, make the roux: In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add 2 tablespoons flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture begins to turn golden in color. Whisk in the milk, whisking until completely smooth. Cook, whisking, until the sauce begins to bubble gently (it will be quite thick). Remove from heat.
In a large bowl, combine the rice, sauce, reserved green tomatoes, Parmigiano, oregano, garlic, 1 egg, and 2 teaspoons salt. Mix well.
To form the mixture into balls, place about 2 tablespoons of the rice batter in the palm of your hand and flatten into an even layer. Place 1 cube of the mozzarella in the center, then cup the rice batter around the cheese so that it’s completely covered and mold it into a golf-ball size round. Place on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining batter and cheese. (You should have about 24 balls.)
Place the remaining 2 cups flour in a shallow dish and season with 1 teaspoon salt. Beat the remaining 2 eggs in another shallow dish. In a third shallow dish, combine the breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon salt.
Working one at a time, roll a rice ball in the flour, shaking off any excess, then roll it in the egg, letting any excess drip off. Finally, roll it in the breadcrumbs, making sure to get an even crust. Set the ball on a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining rice batter. (You can make the balls up to this point and freeze them. Place them on a baking sheet in an even layer in the freezer for 1 hour, then transfer to a resealable plastic bag and freeze for up to 6 months. Do not thaw when ready to fry; just increase the frying time by 3 minutes or so.)
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat 3 inches of oil until it reaches 330 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer. Add the rice balls in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan, and fry for 3 to 4 minutes, flipping the balls with tongs throughout, until they are deep golden brown on all sides. Transfer the rice balls to a paper-towel-lined plate and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt. Serve hot.