As for many Italian Americans, my childhood Thanksgiving and Christmas Eves were all about seafood. Christmas brought the traditional Sicilian Feast of the Seven Fishes, while Thanksgiving meant local Dungeness crab served steamed with lemon and butter, roasted with garlic and herbs, or tossed with pasta aglio e olio (spaghetti with garlic and olive oil). I loved all of it, but perhaps my favorite preparation was my mother’s arancini — rice balls filled with crab and mascarpone (Italian cream cheese) and fried until golden. Before you write to tell me it’s “not Italian” to add cheese to seafood, let me say I normally agree (as did my grandfather), but it works here because the arancini need a creamy element to bind them.
The recipe may seem daunting (a lot of downtime waiting for things to cool) but it’s really not difficult once you get a rhythm going, and the delicious results — crunchy, brown outside and creamy, crab-filled inside — are well worth the effort. Arancini can also be made ahead and frozen for up to a month. You can use any kind of crustacean (lobster, shrimp, snow crab, Alaskan king crab, lump crab), but it’s best with local Dungeness. And be sure to buy the freshest crab available (see page 10) as it will be the firmest and the sweetest. I’ve also included the recipe for my mother’s simple mascarpone dipping sauce, which is the perfect companion to the arancini.
Wine pairing: Keep the Italian theme with a crisp, dry Orvieto, such as Tenuta Le Velette Orvieto Classico, or a Prosecco like Villa Sandi. Both can handle the fried cheesy richness while not overwhelming the delicate crab.
Dungeness Crab Arancini
1½ cups water
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup Arborio rice
½ cup fresh Dungeness crabmeat
¼ cup mascarpone
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons water
1½ cups panko (Japanese bread-crumbs)
High smoke point oil (such as avocado, peanut, safflower, or grapeseed)
Bring the water and salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Add rice, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until tender, about 15–20 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
While the rice is cooking, squeeze the crabmeat in a clean dish towel to remove excess moisture. Add the crabmeat, mascarpone, lemon juice, lemon zest, and parsley to the cooked rice, and fold together with a spatula until well combined.
Spread the mixture evenly on a sheet pan and cover with plastic wrap, piercing the plastic in a few places to allow steam to escape. Refrigerate until the mixture is cold (about 2 hours).
With moistened hands, roll the mixture into golf-sized balls (I use a meatball scoop but a small cookie scoop also works), placing them on a clean sheet pan as you go. You should end up with around 22 arancini.
Create a breading station with a clean sheet pan, three bowls, and three forks. Place the flour, beaten eggs, and breadcrumbs in the bowls. Use one hand as your “dry” hand and the other as your “wet” hand. With the dry hand, drop a rice ball into the flour and move gently with fork to coat it on all sides. Using the dry hand, pick up the ball, shake off any excess flour, and drop it into the beaten egg mixture. Use fork to uniformly coat the ball. With your wet hand, lift the ball out of the eggs, letting any excess drip back into the bowl. Transfer to the breadcrumbs and move gently with fork to coat evenly. Use your dry hand to transfer the coated ball to the clean sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining arancini. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours. To save for future use, freeze the arancini on the pan and transfer to plastic bags (keep frozen for up to one month).
To fry immediately, set a rack over a clean sheet pan and place near the stove. Pour 2 to 3 inches of oil into a Dutch oven or large, high-sided sauté pan and heat until a thermometer reads 350°F (I do it by eye — oil is ready when it shimmers and bubbles gather around a wooden spoon). Fry the arancini a few at a time, being careful not to crowd them, until golden brown (about 4 minutes if freshly made or 6 minutes if frozen). Using a spider (wire mesh strainer), transfer the arancini to the rack to drain. Sprinkle with fresh lemon zest and parsley if desired. Serve warm with wedges of lemon for squeezing.
Mascarpone Dipping Sauce
1 cup mascarpone cheese, room temperature
¾ cup sour cream
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper
Squeeze of lemon juice
In a bowl, combine the mascarpone, sour cream, lemon zest, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Mix again. Transfer dip to individual ramekins and serve alongside arancini.