The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen by Matt Lee and Ted Lee is our Top Pick in Cookbooks! If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Charleston, South Carolina, you know how good the food is. Writes Cooking columnist Sybil Pratt, “Good food, even great food, isn’t ‘trendy’ here, it’s an integral and celebrated part of Lowcountry life.”
Rice and Ham Croquettes with Tomato Sauce
Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
The old Lowcountry cookbooks have dozens of recipes for different ways you can make rice a base for various sauces and stews. There are rice waffles and rice breads, rice cakes and rice croquettes. When we ran across the croquettes in Mrs. Samuel G. Stoney’s Carolina Rice Cookbook (1901), we immediately thought of arancini—addictive fried rice balls often served with tomato sauce as an appetizer or a snack in Italy. We don’t know for sure whether rice croquettes ever came into contact with the tomato sauce from an earlier Lowcountry cookbook, Sarah Rutledge’s 1847 The Carolina Housewife.
What? You’re thinking, Italian tomato sauce in the South? In the nineteenth century?
Sì, sì. In fact, the archives at Middleton Place has the very copy of The Carolina Housewife owned by Paolina Bentivoglio Middleton, the Italian woman who married Sarah Rutledge’s cousin, Arthur Middleton (grandson of the Arthur who signed the Declaration of Independence), in Rome in 1841. The book contains annotations throughout, written in Paolina Middleton’s own hand, and in the margin of the recipe on page 90 for “Tomato Sauce” are the words, Mio recetto. We—and more important, Barbara Doyle, the archivist at Middleton Place—are fairly certain that this means the recipe was contributed to Sarah Rutledge’s cookbook by her cousin.
In any event, the rice croquettes found in the old books tend to be rather monastic affairs of egg and milk and not much else, so we find they take well to the cross-cultural dressing up. Here, we’ve torqued the seasoning of the rice balls themselves with country ham and scallions; and the garlicky, spicy sauce (which cooks in the time it takes to form and fry the rice croquettes) is the perfect dunk for the croquettes. Or, if you prefer, you can pour the sauce over them the way you would meatballs. Leave out the country ham, and you have a knockout vegetarian dish.
Buon appetito, y’all!
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 cup diced sweet onion (1 medium onion)
- 4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 large eggs
- 3 cups cooked rice, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons finely diced country ham or prosciutto
- ½ cup finely chopped scallions (white part and 2 inches into green)
- 3 ounces cream cheese, very soft
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 1¼ cups panko bread crumbs
- 4 to 6 cups canola or other frying oil
1. Make the tomato sauce: Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and cook until fragrant and soft but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the red pepper flakes and cover. When the sauce comes to a simmer, turn the heat to low and continue to simmer partially uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, until the sauce is thick.
2. Make the croquettes: Preheat the oven to 225ºF.
3. In a large bowl, mix the rice, ham, scallions, and cream cheese until thoroughly combined. Season the mixture to taste with salt and black pepper. Beat one of the eggs well, add it to the bowl, and stir gently with a spatula until evenly coated.
4. Using wet hands, form the rice mixture into Ping-Pongsize balls. Beat the remaining egg in a small bowl with the milk. Put the bread crumbs in a shallow bowl. Dip the balls in the egg and then roll in the crumbs until evenly coated.
5. Pour the oil into a 4-quart (or larger) Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot to a depth of about 1½ inches. Turn the heat to medium high, and when the oil reaches 350ºF on a frying thermometer, fry the rice balls in batches, about six at a time, turning them in the oil as they brown, for about 3 minutes total. Transfer as finished to the oven, placed on a heat-proof plate lined with a paper towel. When all the rice balls have been fried, serve with the warm tomato sauce.