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Two Italian favorites meet in a crispy bite
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Eggplant is a persnickety vegetable: It can easily turn bitter or get lost under heavy cheese sauces. But at New York's bustling new Spasso restaurant, chef Craig Wallen gives the creamy vegetable its deserved attention in a dish that's a mash-up of two Italian classics: eggplant parm and Sicilian arancini. By substituting eggplant for the fried rice ball's traditional risotto filling--and flavoring it with basil, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese--the earthy vegetable shines at its brightest. Light and crisp, these unconventional arancini can be served alone or, better yet, with warm marinara sauce as an homage to their eggplant parm predecessors.

Eggplant Arancini

Recipe adapted from Craig Wallen, Spasso, NYC

Yield: 4 appetizer servings (about 12 arancini)

Ingredients

2 large eggplants (about 2½ pounds total)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

8 basil leaves, finely chopped

¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shredded

¼ teaspoon red-pepper flakes

Salt

All-purpose flour

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons water

1 cup prepared unseasoned breadcrumbs

Vegetable oil, for frying

Marinara sauce, for serving (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 450°. Place the eggplants on a baking sheet and drizzle lightly with the olive oil. Bake until the inside of the eggplants is soft and the outside is charred, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove the eggplants from the oven and, when cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skins.

2. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Chop the eggplants into ½-inch pieces and place in the strainer to drain.

3. Transfer the eggplant to a large bowl. Add the garlic, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano and red-pepper flakes and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until cool to the touch.

4. To prepare the arancini, dust a baking sheet lightly with flour and set aside. Using your hands, form the eggplant mixture into 1-inch balls and place on the prepared baking sheet. In a shallow bowl, whisk together the eggs and water. Place the breadcrumbs in another bowl.

5. Add enough vegetable oil to a large, heavy saucepan so you'll be able to completely submerge the arancini. Heat the oil to 350°. Dip one eggplant ball into the egg, allow the excess drip off, then roll in the breadcrumbs. Carefully place the breaded ball in the oil and fry until deep-golden brown and crispy, about 1 to 1½ minutes. Remove with a slotted spatula and place on paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining eggplant mixture until all the arancini are fried. Serve immediately with warm marinara sauce, if using.

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