Cup day for many Melbournians is as big as Christmas. It’s not just about the horses, or the lovely Spring weather, the State holiday, or the frocks. Cup Day marks the beginning of our festive season; it’s a carnival and I love it! Always occurring on the first Tuesday of November, many Melbournians take advantage of this and enjoy a four day holiday. Not much point in going to work or school on the Monday is there? Oaks Day, or ‘Ladies Day’ follows on the Thursday- which provides another excuse for a party with all your amiche, preferably wearing an OTT hat and drinking more vino frizzante.
Mr Tranquillo doesn’t particularly care for Cup Day. He dislikes gambling, is not interested in horses, it’s a mug’s game as far as he is concerned. He and I belong to that old Australian cultural divide- Scottish/Irish, Presbyterian/Catholic, wowser/splurger, squatter/working class. These class and religious divisions have largely disappeared from multi- cultural Australia, hooray, but can re-emerge on Melbourne Cup Day here in our little Castello. I’m the card-playing, dancing mad Irish woman when it comes to Cup Day and he becomes the sensible, taciturn Scot. Whilst I run about writing silly lists for finger food, Mr Tranquillo calmly works on the gardens. It’s party time again and it will stay that way for at least two months. We can all breathe a sigh of relief on New Year’s Day when I put my Irish party monster to rest.
My search has begun for Italian sounding horses for the Corsa di Cavalli, the ‘big horse race that stops the nation’. There are ten races on the day, and my rule is that the horse must have an Italian name. It’s a kind of system for a once a year gambler. Some beautiful sounding cavalli con nomi italiani are running this year. Bella Roma, Pelicano and Lampedusa just to name a few but in the big race, the Melbourne Cup, Dandino, Fiorente and Ruscello are my hot tips for this year’s Melbourne cup. But please don’t follow me, my “Italian name” approach to betting is rarely successful!!
The party food prep for Cup Day is a dress rehearsal for the whole mad season. Bite size portions -stuzzichini- will enable the guests to sip champagne, check the form guide, eat, manage bets online, and watch the horses parade on the TV, simultaneously. My first little finger food offering, Pesto Arancini, will be served with a sugo di arrabiatta – a chilli laced tomato sauce and caper berry on piccolissimo plates. The beauty is that they can be made ahead of time, frozen and reheated on the day. There will be nine other mini piatti to go with each race. Can I take photos of each dish on the day? I don’t think I’m that dexterous.
Arancini di pesto
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons butter
1 small onion very finely chopped
1 cup arborio rice *
3 cups stock, made with one vegetable or chicken stock cube, heated
3 generous tablespoons pesto
1 cm cubes of mozzarella or bocconcini
1 cup plain flour
3 eggs lightly beaten
two cups dried breadcrumbs
vegetable oil to deep fry.
Heat oil in a large heavy based saucepan. ( ideally cast iron ) Add the onion and gently cook for a few minutes until soft. Add the rice, tossing till coated, then add the hot stock, stir a little, then put the lid on, turn to low heat, ad cook for around 20-25 minutes. There is no need to make a serious risotto style dish for Arancini. Cheat!
Transfer the rice to a bowl and while cooling, add the pesto. Stir, let cool completely, then chill overnight.
Take a heaped tablespoon or so of the mixture, and roll into balls. Push a little cube of mozzarella ( or other melting cheese) into the centre and re-shape, roll in the flour, then the egg, then the breadcrumbs. Chill again.
Heat the oil in a large saucepan, cook the arancini in batches for a few minutes until crisp and golden brown, Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel to drain. When cool, place the balls on a baking tray lined with non-stick paper: freeze until solid. Then remove and pop into plastic storage bags.
When required, heat the oven to 180c ( 400 F), and reheat, covered with foil for 15 minutes. Serve the arancini with arrabbiata.
* I use an everyday arborio rice for this dish, saving the good stuff, Vialone Nano and Canaroli, for risotto.
Photos. The arancini is stages of production. My balls are a bit larger than I wanted! Onto a tray for initial freezing. Into stand up plastic zip lock bags once frozen. Re-heated in the oven ( 180c) for 20-25 minutes. Served with arrabbiata sauce and a caper berry.