This is a recipe from ‘Sicily – Recipes from an Italian Island’ our latest book of the regional food of Italy. It’s one of those dishes that is so unctuous and satisfying that even the most dedicated carnivore will forget that there is no meat in the recipe. It’s the perfect celebration dish for any vegetarians in the family as it’s not only easy to make but its impressive to look at too. The colourful layers of tomatoey rice, spinach and melting Mozzarella make it one of our family favourites.
Timballo di riso
Salvatore, our guide around Palermo, likened Sicilian culture to lasagne, with each layer a different layer of history. You can take a bite from the lasagne but you cannot separate the layers; you bite into them all together. It is the same with the Sicilian dish of timballo, named after the timbale, the mould it is cooked in.
Rice timbale is an elaborate layered dish from eastern Sicily, which is said to derive from Catania during the time of the Arab occupation. There are probably hundreds of variations of timbale; some are made with penne and I have seen ones made with spaghetti rings. In fact, it is a good way to use up leftover risotto or pasta. And do try layers of roasted aubergine (eggplant), flavouring the rice with saffron or adding cooked mushrooms, for a few ideas. I spent a day working with our chef Gregorio Piazza from Augusta, near Catania, and we invented our own version, taking into account our children’s preferences and what we thought people would realistically make at home. It is gluten-free and can be adapted to a filling of your choice. Gregorio said proudly that it looks British but it tastes Sicilian! Our children love it and it is not complicated to make. You can leave it in an ovenproof dish or go for the ‘wow’ factor and cook the timbale in a spring form cake tin, which can be removed after cooking.
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
50 g (2 oz/½ stick) salted butter
1 shallot or white onion, finely chopped
500 g (1 lb 2 oz/2¼ cups) Arborio rice
200 ml (7 fl oz/scant 1 cup) white wine
550 g (1 lb 3 oz) Cherry Tomato Sauce
(see page 144)
800–900 ml (28–31 fl oz/3⅓–4 cups)
hot chicken or vegetable stock,
or hot water
100 g (3½ oz) grana padano, finely grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 × 125 g (4 oz) balls of cow’s or buffalo mozzarella
400 g (14 oz/2 cups) squeezed out
spinach (from approximately 1 kg/
2 lb 3 oz cooked fresh leaves or 500 g/1 lb 2 oz
thawed frozen spinach)
1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
handful of basil leaves
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4). Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil and the butter in a frying pan and fry the shallot until soft, then add the rice. Toast the rice for around 3 minutes – it will start to crackle – then add the wine. Allow the wine to evaporate and reduce for another 3 minutes, then add the tomato sauce and 600 ml (20 fl oz/2½ cups) of the stock. Stir through frequently, keeping the heat to medium, and add a little more stock as necessary until you have a firm, thick risotto, which should take around 20 minutes. Add 80 g (3 oz) of the Grana Padano and stir through. Season to taste and remove from the heat.
Cut the mozzarella into 1 cm (½ in) slices and put into a colander to drain. Saute the spinach in the remaining oil flavoured with the garlic and seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Spread half of the tomato rice in the bottom of a 30 x 21 cm (12 x 8¼ in) ovenproof dish at least 5 cm (2 in) deep. Then add the spinach, followed by a layer of mozzarella and half of the Grana Padano. Follow this with the basil leaves, the remaining rice and top with the rest of the grana padano. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Serve straight away, while the cheese is still bubbling on top.
This timbale recipe also makes a beautiful layered savoury cake when cooked in a cake tin. To do this, generously grease a loose-bottomed 24 cm (9½ in) cake tin with butter. Follow the method above and after removing from the oven allow the timbale to sit for 10 minutes before removing from the tin.
For signed copies of the book ‘Sicily – Recipes from and Italian Island’ published by Hardie Grant click here. The beautiful photography throughout the book is by the talented Helen Cathcart.