If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love simple and quick recipes. Like most of you, I don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen just for the pleasure of it, especially on a week day, so I tend to opt for dishes that can be ready in a couple of hours.
Of course there are exceptional times and the holidays are one of them. First of all, I am always (well let’s say often!) in a very good mood because I love Christmas time. There is something magic about it and it seems to affect my way of being in a positive way!
Second of all, my parents are always visiting us and when they are in our house, I feel this strong urge to eat dishes whose flavors bring up childhood memories. I’m sure many of you have experienced the same feeling when mommy is around. You automatically return to play the child’s role as if no years had gone by since you were a little kid (although in the meantime you may have become a parent yourself!) and spent time in the kitchen watching your mom prepare some delicious food.
Last but not least, having my parents in the kitchen equals four additional hands capable of working in harmony, without supervision, tremendously shortening the cooking time and, most importantly, delivering spectacular results, no matter what. I could not ask for more!
Well, after some thought, I have settled on the well known Neapolitan “sartu’ di riso” or rice sartu’ as my dish of choice to celebrate the arrival of the New Year.
Let me tell you about the way this great dish was born according to a story that I recently read on an Italian website, which amused me so much that I think it is worth sharing.
According to this story, rice first arrived in Naples from Spain at the end of the 14th century, along with the Aragonese domination. Unfortunately for those little grains, people from Naples did not like them at all! Apparently, they associated rice with the food given to people sick with gastrointestinal diseases (boiled white rice). For this reason, Neapolitans started calling rice “belly washer”!
According to the story, rice migrated to more welcoming lands, i.e., to the North of Italy where it was received with all the honors and decided to make itself at home there, thus starting a long-standing tradition of delicious risotto dishes.
Four long centuries had to go by before rice would come back to the Neapolitan soil and finally get the attention and credit it deserves. In the 18th century, Naples was under French domination and the Neapolitan aristocratic families really wanted to fit in and looked sophisticated before the eyes of the new rulers, so they started speaking French and eating French food. So, the kitchens of Neapolitan aristocrats became the reign of French cooks and those Neapolitan cooks who knew how to cook French food.
Now, the French happened to love rice, so the cooks had to find a way to make the Neapolitan nobles like rice, one way or another. The first thing they did was to add some tomato sauce (so beloved by the Campanian palates) to the rice. But that wasn’t enough! So they decided to also add peas, fried eggplants and small meatballs to the rice to enrich its taste. Those sneaky cooks came up with the idea of putting all these yummy “treats” on top of the rice as a garnishment to make the nobles’ mouths water. The French translation of “on top of everything” is “sur tout“. The passage from the French “sur tout” to the Neapolitan adaptation “sartu’” was just a short step!
Every food story has and should have a happy ending. This one is no exception. The Neapolitan aristocrats ended up loving sartu’ very much and, little by little, this amazing dish found its way to the tables of those who were not as privileged, proving that good food doesn’t know social stratification!
Before we get to the actual recipe, let me just clarify one point. Both my parents are from the South of Italy but neither of them is from Naples. Thus, the recipe that I’m about to share is my family’s version of sartu’. I have read and seen many versions of this dish and I noticed that most of them use the so-called Neapolitan ragu’ (a meat-based tomato sauce that is made, among other ingredients, with ground meat and sausages) as the assembling sauce of the sartu’ as opposed to my family’s version which calls for simple tomato sauce. As to the filling and the garnishment, I have seen sausages, eggplants, mushrooms, chicken livers and even pancetta. As cheese, some use some provolone cheese in lieu of mozzarella cheese.
What I’m trying to say is twofold: firstly, our recipe can be just a starting point for you to come up with your own family version of sartu’, being creative and using the ingredients that you and your loved ones like the most.
Secondly, if there is some of you, beloved readers, who comes from Naples (or whose family comes from there) and is willing to share their thoughts and family traditions about this rice masterpiece, I would love to hear from you!
And now, without further ado, let’s get a little technical!
1 pound, Arborio rice
For the tomato sauce:
3/4 of 1 cup, extravirgin olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped (optional)
2 cans, San Marzano peeled tomatoes
3/4 pound, green peas
For the meatballs and tomato sauce:
1 pound, ground beef
3 slices, white bread
3/4 Tbsp, whole milk
8 Tbsp, grated Parmigiano cheese
2 cups, vegetable oil
1/4 cup, extravirgin olive oil
1/4 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 can, San Marzano peeled tomatoes
For the filling and assembling:
10 mozzarella ciliegine
4 hard boiled eggs
8 Tbsp, grated Parmigiano cheese
Take the mozzarella ciliegine out of the water and put them in a colander until it’s time to use them for the filling so that they will lose their excess water.
Put the bread slices into the milk. If you don’t have milk, you can use some water instead.
In a non-stick large pot, pour the oil and, if you decide so, the onion (my mother doesn’t use it ) and cook, on a very low heat, until the onion softens.
Place a food mill directly on top of a pot and process the tomatoes, add some salt (to taste) and let the sauce cook in the pot on medium heat. After about 15 minutes, add the peas. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until the water evaporates completely and the sauce thickens.
While the first sauce is cooking, put the ground meat into a bowl. Squeeze the bread with your hands and add it to the meat. Add the Parmigiano cheese, the eggs, some salt (to taste) and knead the meat mixture with your hands until you obtain a smooth and homogeneous mixture. With the help of your hands, make small meatballs. Their size should be that of half a walnut.
Pour the vegetable oil into a non-stick medium/large pot on medium heat and when the oil is hot, fry the meatballs. Put the fried meatballs in some paper towel so that the paper absorbs the excess oil.
Pour the olive oil into another non-stick pot, add the onion and cook, on a very low heat, until the onion softens. Always with the help of a food mill, process the tomatoes, put them into the pot, add some salt (to taste) and let the sauce cook on medium heat. After about 20 minutes, add the fried meatballs. Keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until the water evaporates completely and the sauce thickens.
Put a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil. When the water is boiling, add the rice and cook until al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain the rice, add the peas, tomato sauce and 5/6 Tbsp of Parmigiano cheese and, with the help of a wooden spoon, toss to coat.
In a bundt cake pan, put some of the rice mixture up to half the height of the pan. Cut the mozzarella ciliegine in half and distribute them evenly on top of the rice mixture. Cut the hard boiled eggs into bits and add them on top of the rice and the ciliegine. With the help of a paddle, repeat the same process with some of the meatballs. Cover the ciliegine, the eggs and the meatballs with the rest of the rice. Finish up by adding the rest of the Parmigiano cheese as well as some tomato sauce with a few meatballs.
Preheat the oven at 350 F. Put the sartu’ in the oven for about 30 minutes. Let it cool off completely and turn the sartu’ over on a serving plate.
I usually put the rest of the tomato sauce and meatballs in the hole in the middle of the sartu’. Unfortunately, I did not have enough meatballs left to decorate the top of my sartu’ because Stefano was famished and ate lots of meatballs which were supposed to be used as garnishment. Hopefully, your equivalent of him is not going to be around when you are about to put the finishing touches on your dish! You can even use some slices of hard boiled eggs as final garnishment.
A little note as a final touch. My pan worked beautifully and it was very easy to turn my sartu’ over once it cooled off. I have read that, if you are not completely sure about your pan, you can grease it with some butter and cover it with breadcrumbs. I haven’t tried this method yet so I cannot vouch for it but my mom tells me that it works wonderfully.
Well, this was sure long, but hopefully worth it! Please let me know if any of you decides to give it a shot and try it out!
May you all have a smashing, wonderful and delicious New Year!