If there's a right time of year to cook with saffron, it's the holidays. The highly prized spice has an exquisite flavor, which it lends to these Italian rice balls. Most arancini are stuffed with meat sauce or cheese, but these are not--all the better for savoring the saffron.
Makes 15 (2-inch) arancini
5 cups good-quality chicken broth
Pinch of saffron
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ yellow onion, diced
1½ cups short-grain risotto rice (such as Arborio, Vialone Nano, or Cannaroli)
½ cup white wine
½ cup grated Parmigiano
½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Flour, for rolling
1 - 2 eggs, for dipping
Panko or breadcrumbs, for rolling
Oil, for frying
Pour the chicken broth into a pot and bring to a gentle simmer. Ladle a few tablespoons of hot broth into a small bowl and stir in the saffron. Let the saffron soak for at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot set over medium heat. Once the butter melts and begins to foam, add the onion and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the onion softens, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook until it sizzles and turns translucent around the edges, another couple of minutes. Pour in the wine and stir until most of the liquid evaporates, then add about ½ cup of the simmering broth and ¼ teaspoon salt. The rice will soak up all the liquid and begin to clump slightly. Stirring occasionally, continue to add ½ cup of broth each time the rice absorbs the liquid and thickens. The risotto is done when the rice is tender but retains a slight firmness at its core, like pasta al dente, about 20 minutes or so. (You may not need to use all the broth).
Remove the pot from the heat. Add the saffron mixture, Parmigiano, and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Let the risotto rest for 2 - 3 minutes, and then give it a good stir until the risotto becomes a little creamier. Taste for seasoning and add salt, if needed. Pour the risotto out on a rimmed baking sheet or large platter, sprinkle the parsley over the top, and let the risotto cool completely. (Risotto can be made several days ahead and refrigerated until you're ready to make the arancini.)
Use a large spoon and your hands to shape 2-inch balls of cooled risotto, squeezing to press each ball together. Place some flour in a shallow dish. Crack the egg into a bowl and whisk to break it up. Place the panko in another shallow dish. Take one ball at a time and roll it in flour, dip it in egg, and then roll it in panko.
Heat at least ½ inch of frying oil in a heavy pot until the oil reaches 350°F. Carefully add as many arancini as will comfortably fit in a single layer and fry them, flipping often, until they are evenly golden brown and crisp on the outside, about 4 - 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a brown paper bag and let cool slightly. Fry the second batch of arancini. Serve warm.
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