Sicily meets the South in these Sweet Corn & Pimento Cheese Arancini made with leftover Sweet Corn Risotto, which is a meal in it’s own right, especially topped with a few barbecued Gulf shrimp or crispy seared scallops and fresh thyme leaves. I recommend making a big batch of the risotto for supper and then making arancini with the leftovers the next day. Arancini, Italian stuffed rice balls, are crispy on the outside and creamy and cheesy on the inside. They freeze well for up to 3 months and can be fried straight from frozen, making them the ideal snack to keep on hand. They also keep in the fridge for up to 3 days prior to frying if you want to make them ahead. To reheat fried rice balls, bake them in an oven at 350 F for about 10 minutes or until hot. Naturally, these can be made with any type of risotto and can be filled with anything you like, but this particularly southern riff (optionally laced with bacon for the omnivores out there) is a favorite. The recipe below was enough for dinner for two and then about 10-12 rice balls the next day.
A Southern Summer
This has been the summer where I’ve fallen back in love with Tennessee. Hence the very southern ingredients in these Sweet Corn & Pimento Cheese Arancini. While a global pandemic and protests reshape the world as we know it, my own life is being reshaped as well. Instead of traveling and working between Paris, Kyoto, and Marrakech as I normally would this time of year, I find myself back in the south. And the verdict is, despite having lived and travelled all over the world, I’m undeniably southern.
I spend golden afternoons on the boat and floating on my back in Wolftever Creek, the same as I did as a child. I hike past mossy boulders to waterfalls and gracelessly scramble down the embankment to my favorite swimming hole. I ride past the train tracks with the windows down and country music blaring. I sing along. Poorly. My daughter is learning how to swim in the same pool I learned in when I was her age, and I ride on the back of jet skis and motorcycles, hanging on for dear life. We grill out, shuck oysters, fry catfish & hush puppies in a cast iron skillet, and sit in the kiddie pool on the back patio with a beer (or, full disclosure, a hard seltzer when I’m being extra basic.)
It may not be Paris, but the thing I’ve learned in returning home is that joy isn’t “out there”. And I can be happier splitting a cheese burger and a basket of cornmeal fried oysters on the Tennessee River with a pitcher than I can be in a Michelin starred restaurant sipping orange wine in Paris. Both are lovely, but the reality is it’s who you’re with and who you are, not where you are, that determines how joyful any given experience is.
I’ll continue to travel when the world reopens again, but my desire to live abroad has been greatly diminished by the discovery that there is just as much joy to be found here as in all the canals of Venice and hot springs of Japan. How your life feels matters more than how it looks. For now, during these strange times, I’m trading my linen frocks for cut off Levi’s and a white t-shirt. And the menu includes a lot of BBQ, sweet corn, summer tomatoes, and pimento cheese. If you need me, I’ll be down by the creek.
A southern riff on a Sicilian classic, these crispy, creamy rice balls are an addictive crowd pleaser and child approved. This recipe makes enough risotto to serve 4-6 people. I recommend cooking it for dinner and then using the leftovers for arancini the next day as the risotto is way too good to just be made for arancini (though of course you can!) If you’ll be serving 4-6 you can double the batch to have plenty of leftovers. I like to make as many as I can and freeze them to keep on hand for an easy appetizer.
For Sweet Corn Risotto
4-6 cups low sodium veggie or chicken stock
2 ears of sweet corn, kernels cut off the cob and cobs reserved (you can sub 2 cups of frozen corn)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided in half
1 ½ cups diced yellow onion (about 1 medium onion)
1 ½ cup un-rinsed risotto rice (like arborio, carnaroli, or sushi rice in a pinch if you can’t find those)
½ cup white wine
1 ½ cup finely grated parmesan
¼ cup heavy cream
Zest of one lemon
Lemon juice to taste
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
fresh thyme leaves, for serving as risotto
10 Oz of Pimento cheese (I recommend My Three Sons or homemade)
4 slices fried Bacon, crumbled (optional, omit if vegetarian)
½ cup Flour
3 cups Panko
Oil for frying (we used peanut oil)
Hot pepper jelly or marinara for serving, optional
Make the risotto.
Cut the corn off the cobs and set aside. Simmer the broth with the corn cobs (with the corn removed) and a few sprigs of thyme (if using) while you prep for the risotto.
In a large high sided skillet (recommended) or a heavy bottom Dutch oven (if you’re doubling the batch you might need a big pot) melt 3 T of the butter.
Sweat the onions in the butter until fragrant and translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the rice and toast in the hot fat for about a minute or two. Pour in the wine and cook until it’s completely absorbed.
Stirring frequently, add the warm broth one ladleful at a time, adding more as each is absorbed. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente. This should take about 20-30 minutes and the rice should be bubbling as it cooks. To see if it’s done you can use the “smear test” and smear a grain between your fingers. There should still be the faintest bit of chalky white in the center of the grain.
Halfway through cooking, at about the ten minute mark, stir in the corn, season to taste with salt, and continue to cook until the rice is done. The risotto should be neither soupy nor dry but rather should slowly spread when pushed around.
Once the risotto is done, remove from the heat and stir in the cheese, lemon zest, 3 additional tablespoons butter, and lemon juice and black pepper to taste.
Serve the risotto immediately and top with fresh thyme leaves once plated. Store any leftovers for Arancini covered tightly with plastic wrap pressed to the surface in the fridge once the leftovers are room temperature. To make the same day, spread the risotto out on a sheet tray and cover the top with plastic wrap to chill more quickly, at least one hour.
In a bowl combine the pimento cheese and bacon if using. Form the cold risotto into ¼ cup 2-3” patties in your hand and fill with a generous dollop of pimento cheese and use your fingers to close the patty up into a ball with the cheese inside and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Once all the balls are formed, freeze for 10 minutes.
While they chill, blitz the panko in a blender or food processor to get fine crumbs. Place the crumbs, flour, and eggs in three separate bowls. Beat the eggs with a fork until they’re homogenous. Lightly season all three with salt and fresh cracked black pepper.
Using one hand for wet and one for dry, lightly dredge the balls in flour, shaking off any excess, and then dip them in the egg mixture before rolling them in the bread crumb mixture, gently pressing to coat well, and then place them on a parchment lined sheet tray. At this point they can be frozen up to 3 months or refrigerated covered for up to 3 days before frying. Chill in the fridge while you heat the oil.
To fry the Arancini heat at least 3” of oil in a frying pan or heavy bottom pot to about 325 F. Fry in batches 4-6 minutes being careful to not overcrowd the pan for two minutes before turning and frying an additional 2-4 minutes until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel lined plate and sprinkle with salt while hot. Serve with either hot pepper jelly (a southern classic) or a marinara for dipping, though in all fairness they're so packed with flavor my favorite way to eat them is on their own.
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