Rice is not a great Sicilian ingredient to be honest. There are a couple of notable exceptions, of course, since one of Sicily’s great contributions to English restaurant menus, arancini (or arancine if you’re from Palermo) are about as ricy (did I just invent a new word there?) as you can get. The lack of interest in arborio and carnaroli is also pretty strange, if we think that the introduction of rice on the island dates back to the period of Arab domination, over a thousand years ago. Either way, rice, despite its historic status, has never enjoyed much of a following in this neck of the woods. No idea why, sorry. But whatever the reason, apart from arancini, and sfinci di San Giuseppe (the delicious fried rice fritters flavoured with orange, at least in the Messina version), rice is pretty much absent from traditional Sicilian cuisine. You’ll occasionally find risotto ai frutti di mare, risotto ai porcini or risotto alle mandorle, but these are really just excuses to ring the changes with traditional ingredients. Risotto is not really big this far south. Many people only ever end up eating it at weddings, where two first courses are de rigueur, and the risotto-pasta duet is a classic.
Anyway, despite my misgivings, I suppose I should acknowledge the existence of the rest of Italy occasionally, so you if you will, look at this dish as a kind of peace offering. Blood oranges are still (just about) in season, so now’s the time to take advantage. More’s to the point, the main flavouring ingredient here is liquid. i.e. orange juice, which pretty much rules pasta out, unless you want to thicken it to turn it into a sauce, by adding cream for example (horror of horrors). While of course rice soaks liquid up beautifully and takes in its flavour and colour at the same time. True risotto aficionados will probably be shocked to see that I fail to deglaze the pan with some good white wine (Franciacorta is what we really need here…), but in this case, the job is done by the orange juice. I hope any readers in Lombardy will forgive me, in the same spirit with which I pay homage to their rice…
- 360 g carnaroli rice
- 2 Sicilian blood oranges, the deeper-hued the better, and unwaxed please
- 1 small red (of course) onion, finely chopped
- Leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme
- 30g butter, plus some to finish
- 1.5 litres of hot vegetable stock (keep this much ready, but I doubt you’ll need it all)
- 50g Philadelphia or mascarpone
- 1 heaped tablespoon of grated parmesan
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Wash the oranges well and pare off the zest of half of one of them, making sure you remove any white pith. Blanch the orange zest in boiling water for 2 minutes. Then slice into slivers. Squeeze the oranges and keep the juice.
- Gently fry the onion in the butter. After five minutes, add the rice and toast it for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently.
- Pour the orange juice into the pan, stirring continuously. When all the juice has been absorbed, add the thyme and a ladleful of stock. Continue cooking over a medium heat, adding the stock a ladleful at a time as it is absorbed, stirring frequently.
- Continue until the rice is al dente (the time indicated on the packet should give an idea), then remove from the heat and fold in the mascarpone and parmesan, and another knob of butter if you like. Garnish with slivers of orange zest and freshly ground black pepper.