Supplì al Telefono, Quelle Surprise
Notes and a recipe for a favorite Roman street food; plus a bonus recipe for farmers' market fagioli
I wasn’t planning on (virtually) returning to Rome this week, but then I listened to a podcast that shed light on one of my favorite Roman snacks—supplì al telefono—and so, eccoci qui (here we are).
Supplì or supplì di riso are breaded and fried rice croquettes. When filled with stringy mozzarella cheese they become supplì al telefono because when you bite into them or pull them apart while still warm, the cheese stretches into a long cord (remember when telephones had cords?)
I’ve mentioned my mom’s three sisters in my books and in previous newsletters. Chronologically, Elsa was the second-oldest of the sisters. But she was the family Alpha—an opinionated intellectual who was bossy and pedantic and also loving and generous. Elsa was a professor of literature and a sports enthusiast. She much preferred teaching and skiing in the Apennines to cooking, bhe had a few specialties up her sleeve and supplì was one of them. She made them the classic way, the rice tinged pink with leftover ragù or tomato sauce, the centers generously filled with melty cheese.
It had been awhile since I made supplì but a recent episode of Jeremy Cherfas’s Eat This Podcast reminded me how much I love them and the next thing you know I was back to my frying ways (I do try to limit how often I fry). Cherfas is a freelance reporter (with a biology degree) who lives in Rome. His podcast looks at food through the lenses of history and science. His subjects are wide-ranging, and this particular episode featured a virtual tour of GARUM, Rome’s newly opened museum and library dedicated to cooking, and an interview with its driecto, Matteo Ghiringhini.
One of the museum’s roles, Ghiringhini told Chervas, is to “bust some myths about Italian cuisine,” especially myths relating to the origins of iconic recipes such as tomato sauce and spaghetti alla carbonara (he makes some notable observations about both in the podcast). On the matter of supplì al telefono, conventional wisdom has long held that the iconic street food was a 20th century invention, and that the first recipe for it was published in 1928 in Ada Boni’s seminal cookbook “Il Talismano della Felicità.”
Not so, Ghiringhini says. The first known published recipe dates to 1832 and came from the book “Manuale del cuoco e del pasticcere di raffinato gusto moderno” (Manual of the Cook and Pastry Chef of Refined Modern Taste), by Vincenzo Agnoletti. The most interesting morsel about this discovery, IMO, has to do with the name “supplì,” which is actually a bastardization of the French word surprise (pronounced ‘sur-PREEZE’).
From the GARUM website: “[T]he title of the recipe 'Surprise', with its French derivation, can already help us in backdating the original recipe at least at the time of the French occupation, between 1809 and 1814, when the best customers for the food merchants of the city Eternal were precisely the occupants. And what better way to sell a local product than by giving it a name in the buyer's language, perhaps taking inspiration from the surprised murmurs of the soldiers as they break a tasty supplì?”
Che furbi questi Romani!
RECIPE: Supplì al Telefono
Not surprisingly, there are variations for supplì, which BTW also go by crocchè (or crochette) di riso (rice croquettes). Ada Boni’s recipe in Il Talsimano calls for cooking the rice in sugo finto (meatless tomato sauce) and filling the croquettes with a choice of ingredients: chicken gizzards cooked with dried mushrooms, prosciutto, minced cooked meat, and mozzarella. More recent recipes use a simple filling of mozzarella, which is what Zia Elsa did and is my way, too. As for the sauce, use what you have on hand. I had some leftover beef and pork ragù from a recent class, and it was perfect for this use. However, simple tomato sauce also works well here, as does this vegetarian porcini ragù.
There’s some confusion about whether supplì are the same thing as the equally popular Sicilian street food, aranccini. They are similar but not the same. Supplì are oval in shape and smaller than arancini. The latter are about the size of a tennis ball (sometimes larger) and either round or conical. They are typically stuffed with ragù, peas, and cheese.
Tip: Make the rice a day ahead to give it plenty of time to chill and firm up in the fridge.
Makes 12 supplì
For the rice:
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 cup (200 g) Arborio or other risotto (short-grain) rice
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 cup (60 ml) dry white wine
1 cup (240 ml) homemade ragù (meat sauce) or tomato sauce
2 cups (500 ml) homemade or best-quality commercial chicken or vegetable broth
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (50 g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
A few torn basil leaves (especially if you’re using meatless sauce)
For the supplì:
1 cup (125 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup unseasoned dry breadcrumbs, preferably homemade
4 ounces (115 g) slightly firm mozzarella or smoked mozzarella, or a mix of both, cut into 1/2-inch (1-c m) cubes
1 quart (1 L) sunflower or other vegetable oil, for frying
1. Make the rice: Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. When the butter is melted, stir in the onion, and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, until soft and translucent but not browned. Pour in the rice and stir for 2 to 3 minutes, to coat the grains and to “toast” them lightly. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Let it bubble for a minute or so, then stir in the ragù or sauce. Pour in the broth and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and cook at a gentle simmer, stirring now and then, for about 20 minutes, until al dente. (the grains should be tender but still a little firm in the center). Season to taste with pepper.
2. When the rice is cooked, remove it from the heat and stir in the Parmigiano cheese and basil. Turn the mixture out onto a rimmed baking sheet or large baking dish and spread it out with a spatula. When it has cooled, transfer it to a lidded container and refrigerate until cold.
3. Shape the supplì: Scoop up about 1/4 cup (60 g) cold rice into the palm of your hand and press a trough into it. Place 2 or 3 cubes of mozzarella in the trough, then fold the rice around the cheese so that it is completely encased. Shape the rice into an oval, taking care to pack it tightly. Set it on a plate or baking sheet lined with waxed paper or parchment. Shape the rest of the supplì and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes.
4. Place the flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs in three separate shallow bowls. Roll each supplì first in the flour, shaking off the excess; then in the eggs, letting the excess drip off; and finally in the breadcrumbs. Place them back on the plate or baking sheet as you go.
5. Pour enough oil into a deep frying pan or heavy-bottomed sauce pot (I use an old Dutch oven) to measure 2 inches (5 cm). Heat over medium-high until it is shimmering (it should register 350° F / 180° C on a thermometer). To check if it’s done, use the nonna trick: immerse the tip of the handle of a wooden spoon. Tiny bubbles should form immediately around the handle. Carefully lower 3 or 4 supplì into the oil, taking care not to crowd the pot. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes, nudging them around with the wooden spoon, until they are golden-brown. With a skimmer or slotted spoon, transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate. Put the plate in a warm oven (optional) and fry the rest, in batches, in the same way. Nestle the supplì in a deep plate or shallow bowl and serve.
Cook’s Note: You can make mini supplì by halving each portion of rice and tucking one piece of mozzarella in the center. Form into a ball and proceed with the recipe.
Last week I got lucky at the farmers’ market. I found romano beans—those flat Italian green beans with a wonderful meaty texture and earthy flavor. Then I came across a display of fresh borlotti, a.k.a. cranberry beans or October beans. In June! (Apparently, they can have an early season.) I knew at once what I was going to do with them.
BONUS RECIPE: Fagioli e Fagiolini all’Uccelletto
First, a bit on background on beans (borrowed from my book The Glorious Vegetables of Italy:
Beans are a big, broad family. They encompass everything from tender snap beans to the many varieties of dried beans that must be soaked before cooking. The difference, essentially, is in the stage at which they are harvested. Fresh snap beans (“fagiolini”) are immature pods that are picked before the beans inside have developed. Shell beans (“fagioli”) mature in the pod but are picked, shelled, and cooked while still fresh. Dried beans (“fagioli secchi”) are left to dry in the pod and then harvested; they need to be reconstituted in water before cooking.
The term “all’uccelletto” means “in the style of birds.” Which is to say, stewed in tomato sauce, as you would small game birds. I’ve never stewed game birds, but I do love cooking beans this way, simmering them slowly so that they absorb the flavor of the tomatoes, garlic, and herbs. Generally, you cook one type of bean in this way—romano beans in summer, shell beans in fall, dried beans in winter. I wasn’t sure whether mixing romanos and borlotti would work but it did, and nicely. However, if you can’t find both, use one type.
Stewed beans go especially well with grilled lamb chops, fried chicken cutlets, or thick slices of grilled halloumi cheese. Serve with sturdy Italian bread for scooping up the sauce.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
7 to 8 ounces (225 g) fresh shelled borlotti (cranberry) beans or other fresh shell beans (1 pound / 454 g in the pod)
2 sprigs fresh sage
Fine sea salt
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, lightly crushed
Generous pinch of peperoncino (dried chili pepper)
1 pound (454 g) Romano (flat) green beans, trimmed and snapped in half
2 cups (500 ml) tomato passata (purée)
A few leaves of fresh basil and/or mint
1. Place the shelled borlotti beans in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or pot and fill with water to cover the beans by 1 inch (2.5 cm). Toss in one of the sage sprigs and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, cover partially, and lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes, until the beans are just tender. Season with salt and cook 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat and drain the beans, reserving the liquid.
2. Pour a generous glug of olive oil into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the garlic clove. Set over medium-low heat and cook for a few minutes, pressing on the clove to release its flavor, without letting it brown. Sprinkle in the peperoncino. Add the drained cooked borlotti beans and the raw romano beans and stir to coat them with oil. Pour in the tomato passata and a splash or two of the reserved bean liquid. Season with a pinch of salt and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover partially, and cook for about 45 minutes, until the romano beans are completely tender. Add more bean liquid as needed to loosen the sauce if it becomes too thick. Taste and season with more salt if you like.
3. Remove from the heat and stir in a few torn basil and mint leaves. Spoon the stew into a shallow serving bowl and drizzle with your best olive oil before serving.
P. S. A Birthday Crostata
Today is my dad’s birthday (95 years young!) and as he is a lover of rhubarb, I’m making him this raspberry-strawberry-rhubarb crostata (except I’ve subbed in blueberries for raspberies).
PICTURE ITALY: Vasto (Abruzzo), 2013
Just a heads up that we might be taking a break next week for planning purposes, and also because our Wi-Fi situation may be a little sketchy. But we’ll be back soon. That’s a promise (or a threat).
As always, thank you for reading, subscribing, and sharing.