Eric Akis: Rice croquettes call up fun flavours of Italy

Eric Akis

I bought a beautiful basket of very ripe red tomatoes the other day and turned them into sauce. After making it, I pondered what to serve with it, leafed through my Italian cookbooks for inspiration and opted to make suppli al telefono.

Suppli are similar to Sicilian-style arancini; orange-shaped (arancia is the Italian word for orange) balls of crumb-coated risotto rice fried until golden. Suppli, though, are egg-shaped, Roman-style rice croquettes stuffed with mozzarella cheese.

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When you pull the cooked suppli apart, the strands of melted cheese in the middle resemble old-fashioned telephone wires. It’s why this dish is playfully called “suppli al telefono.”

Suppli are delicious and went very well with my summer tomato sauce. But they do take a bit of time to make and my step-by-step photos will guide you.

You can serve the suppli as an appetizer or as a main-course, with a side salad or grilled summer vegetables.

Suppli al Telefono

Italian-style rice croquettes, stuffed with cheese and basil, coated in breadcrumbs, then fried until golden and very delicious.

Preparation time: 60 minutes

Cooking time: about 50 minutes

Makes: 16 suppli

4 1/3 cups chicken or vegetable stock, plus more if needed

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 cups risotto rice (see Note)

1/2 medium onion, finely diced

1 large garlic clove, minced

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 large eggs, beaten

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

16 medium fresh basil leaves

16 (3/4-inch square) mozzarella cheese (about 125 to 150 grams)

3/4 cup dried breadcrumbs

• vegetable oil, for frying

• warm tomato sauce, to taste (see recipe below and Eric’s options)

Place stock in a pot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. When simmering, turn heat to it’s lowest setting.

Heat olive oil in a second pot set over medium, medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook and stir until tender, about five minutes. Add rice and garlic and cook and stir two minutes more.

Pour in 1 cup of the stock, lowering the heat as needed so that it very gently simmers.

Simmer until that stock is almost fully absorbed by the rice. Slowly add remaining stock in 1/3-cup increments, cooking and stirring until it’s almost fully absorbed by the rice before adding the next 1/3-cup. It should take about 20 minutes to use up all the stock and at that point the rice should look thick and creamy and just be tender (al dente), with a tiny bit of firmness when bitten into.

Remove rice from the heat and stir in Parmesan cheese. Spread rice out on a baking sheet and cool to room temperature. Thoroughly mix the beaten eggs into the rice and season with salt and pepper.

Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper. Put the breadcrumbs into a shallow bowl.

To make suppli, divide the rice into 16 portions, each about 1/3 cup. Dampen your hands with cold water, lift up a portion of the rice and set a basil leaf and piece of cheese in the centre of it. Shape rice into an egg-shaped ball, ensuring the cheese and basil is completely encased by the rice. Fill and form the remaining portions of rice into suppli as you did the first one. When you do, occasionally dampen your hands with water again to help prevent the rice from sticking.

Coat suppli in breadcrumbs and set on the parchment paper-lined baking sheet (see Eric’s options).

Pour three inches of vegetable oil into a deep pot (see Eric’s options). Set over medium-high heat and warm oil to 350 F, or until a small cube of bread fries gold brown in about 15 seconds when dropped into the oil.

Preheat oven to 200 F. Working in batches of three or four, fry the suppli about three and a half to four minutes, until rich golden brown and hot in the centre. Drain on paper towel and set the cooked suppli on a clean baking sheet and keep warm in the oven while you fry the rest. Serve the suppli with tomato sauce.

Note: Rice for risotto is sold at most supermarkets. Bags of it are sometimes simply labeled “risotto rice” or “Italian rice.” You’ll also find specific varieties of rice that are good for risotto, such as arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano.

Eric options: You can make the suppli many hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate until ready to fry. The suppli can also be frozen. If you do that, thaw them before frying.

The suppli could also be fried in a deep fryer. If you don’t want make your own tomato sauce, serve the suppli with a store-bought one, such as passata di pomodoro (strained tomatoes).

Summer Tomato Sauce with Basil

In-season, ripe, red tomatoes cooked and then blended into a sauce you can serve with suppli al telefono and other Italian-style dishes, such as pasta. It yields more sauce than you’ll need for the suppli, but the leftover sauce, once cooled, will freeze well.

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: About 3 1/2 to 4 cups

2 1/2 lbs. ripe red tomatoes (see Note 1)

2 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 medium onion, diced

• pinch or 2 fennel seeds, coarsely crushed (optional; see Note 2)

• pinch red pepper flakes

16 medium fresh basil leaves, or to taste

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut stem end out of each tomato; mark a shallow X at the top of the blossom end. Plunge tomatoes, a few at a time, into the boiling water for 60 seconds, or until the skins start to loosen. Use a slotted spoon to lift tomatoes out of the water, set on a wide plate and cool a few minutes, until safe enough to handle.

Pull the skins off the tomatoes. Cut each tomato in half. Set a fine sieve over a bowl. Squeeze or pull out the seeds from each tomato half into the sieve. Use a whisk to push out as much liquid as you can from the tomato seed mixture. Compost the seeds and skins.

Set the seeded tomato halves on a large cutting board and coarsely chop. Set the chopped tomatoes and the juices on the board in the bowl with the strained tomato seed liquid in it.

Heat oil in a medium pot set over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until tender, about five minutes.

Add the chopped tomatoes to the pot. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the tomatoes are very tender and falling apart, about 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the basil.

Purée the tomato sauce in the pot with an immersion (hand) blender. The puréeing could also be done in a food processor or blender. Taste and season the tomato sauce with salt and pepper and it’s ready.

Note 1: Ripe, deep red tomatoes good for making sauce include an heirloom variety called oxheart, beefsteak tomatoes, ultra sweet tomatoes and/or roma (plum) tomatoes.

Note 2: You can coarsely crush the fennel seeds in a spice grinder, or by placing them in a thick plastic bag and hitting them with a kitchen hammer.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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