Rice Balls

by Ron Russo

It’s New Year’s Eve, early in the morning, and my father is already up, showered and dressed. He’s surveying the kitchen like a general, getting supplies out of the refrigerator and pantry, neatly arranging them. Today is one of many in which my father excels in the kitchen. But perhaps today is the greatest of them all. Today Charlie Russo is making rice balls.

Rice balls are known as “arancini” to Italians, meaning “little oranges.”  That’s how they’re shaped, and thus they were named. People in Dad’s neighborhood eagerly await this day, for tonight there’ll be a party at one of their homes and my father will attend, bearing a huge tray of these scrumptious treats.

My mother awakens soon, grabs a cup of coffee and does her own surveying. “Try not to use every god-damned pot and pan,” she warns. My father takes no heed; he hears this every year, nods his head, then moves forward using every pot and pan imaginable.

Making rice balls is an all-day process. “It takes as much work to make ten as it does to make sixty,” Dad’s often said. Sixty is the approximate goal every year. He starts by boiling the rice – three pounds of it – then draining it, slightly-undercooked. Quickly he adds a huge amount of butter and a very generous mountain of grated Parmigiano cheese. He mixes it all vigorously then starts preparing the filling, which is a simple ragu – - a meaty sauce which contains onion, garlic, ground beef and a hint of tomato sauce that is simmered till it’s thick and fragrant. While the ragu is cooking, dad occasionally stirs the rice so that it doesn’t stick. When it’s lukewarm, he adds about a dozen egg yolks. Once the ragu is ready, he pulls out the ice-cream scoop, digs it into the rice, and makes a half-ball. With a small teaspoon he forms a well in the center and fills it with ragu. Then, with his hands he molds a top half, and the first rice ball is ready for frying. This is done in olive oil. First it’s rolled into the saved egg whites, then breaded; finally getting lowered into the sizzling oil and fried till the coating is crisp.  One down, fifty-nine more to fry.

When in my forties I decided to make a batch of rice balls. I enjoyed cooking, and figured I’d invite some friends over to eat them. I tried to get the recipe from my father but it was painful for him to try and note measurements. “Use only imported Parmigiano,” he warned, but when I asked “How much?” I got “You know. Taste along the way, stop when it tastes right.” I used instinct and would have done fine if I’d remembered the eggs. Without them, the rice balls fell apart when I tried to fry them. So I got a tasty mountain of savory fried rice. It wasn’t bad, but still . . . . 

A few years later my father died, and about a month after his funeral I got an irrepressible yen for Dad’s rice balls. It was Christmas season, just the right time of year. I had finally wangled a recipe, with measurements, from Dad after my first failure. I was ready to go.

I set up the necessary pots, pans and bowls. I made sure that I had the eggs separated and ready; I’d lined up the ingredients for the ragu; I took the imported Parmigiano out of the fridge. I was going the full route: three pounds of rice to make approximately sixty arancini.

I worked very slowly and deliberately; I had no other plans for that day.  Shaping the balls was trickier than I’d figured, and I created a few unidentifiable geometric shapes before I got the hang of it. Needless to say my father was on my mind as I was working. I’m neither religious nor superstitious, but I found myself talking to him, in my head. “Let me get this right, Dad. Let these rice balls taste like yours.”

That night I had my brother to dinner. He was never a chatty sort, nor ebullient with praise, but he took his first bite of my rice ball and his eyes popped. “God, Ron. These taste just like Dad’s!” He couldn’t have said anything better. This coming New Year’s Eve I plan on making rice balls once again. In this time of social distancing, I don’t know with whom I’ll share them. But even if I just eat a few, and freeze the rest, it will be worth the effort. Because to hear my father’s voice once again, as I undoubtedly shall, will make it all worthwhile.

  

Ron Russo has been taking writing study groups at LP2 for many years. They provide the inspiration for him to put fingers to keyboard.