OK, so spring is nearly over and summer is supposed to be a'cumen' in - except it ain't. We had a brief taste of summer sun in April when the volcanic ash cloud closed the airports and us Londoners who live beneath the flight path to Heathrow enjoyed a weekend of silent, deep blue skies. It felt like returning to an earlier, simpler time....
But I digress. Back to the food. This is ripped off from a dish I eat regularly at Carluccios cafe in Bentalls, Kingston. The cafe, one of a chain of many, is conveniently located in the heart of ladies' fashions, a quick dash in kitten heels from Max Mara, LK Bennett, Hugo Boss and Phase 8. I meet my best friend, and companion in shopping crime, here so often that the staff know us. In fact, Sarah goes there so frequently that the staff have her Americano with hot milk on the side brewing as she sashays through the door.
Today, I hotfooted it (not easy in high-heeled black patent wedge peep toes) from Notting Hill where I had spent a couple of hours keeping My Old Man in Kensington happy, and met Sarah for lunch and shopping. We started off being very good, requesting only water to have with our food, but we weakened and ended up drinking two glasses of Prosecco each, and then cruising the 20% off rails of Phase 8. Kerching.
Today, to ring the changes, I had Spaghetti alla Vongole, another pasta dish on the Carluccios menu which I find delicious. This is tricky to get right: you need to make sure the sauce (made from olive oil, white wine, chili and garlic) is right so that it clings slickly to the strands of spaghetti. It should never be runny or watery. And by the way, no Italian would ever have cheese with this dish!
Penne Giardinera is light and fresh, an easy supper dish and a good one to fling at vegetarians who may darken your door (not suitable for vegans though, because of the cheese/egg content). This evening, because I had already had pasta for lunch, I eschewed the penne and just had the rest of the ingredients, which were perfect. The grated courgettes, sprinkled with fresh parmesan, could also be used as a topping for bruschetta.
You don't have to use penne: I use a pasta called Elicoidali from Waitrose, which is bigger than penne. This dish does need fairly large pasta shapes. It is not suitable for spaghetti or linguine. You don't have to include the deep-fried spinach balls, but they are really scrummy and definitely 'make' this dish! You could also just make the spinach balls and serve them as a canape.... I do use my deep-fat fryer for making these because it's easier, but you could use a wok or saucepan. Remove the spinach balls from the fat with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.
For the spinach balls:
700g raw spinach (about 250g when cooked)
half a clove of garlic, minced
1 egg, beaten
a tiny pinch of nutmeg
45g Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
70g dry breadcrumbs
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
olive oil for shallow frying
500g Penne Regine (large artisan penne from Puglia) or similar pasta shapes
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
20g red chillies, finely chopped
2 medium courgettes, coarsely grated
240g Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
To make 28 spinach balls (7 per person):
Boil, but don’t overcook, the spinach in lightly salted water. Press it dry, and then chop roughly. In a bowl, mix together the spinach, garlic, egg, nutmeg and Parmesan. Add about half of the breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Roll one ball and fry it, to test for consistency and taste. (If the mixture is too wet, the ball will fall apart during cooking, but too much bread content will lessen the spinach flavour.) Add some more breadcrumbs or seasoning if needed. Fry until golden and crisp on the outside, then set aside to drain on kitchen paper.
For the courgette sauce, lightly fry the grated courgette with the garlic and chillies. Season with salt & pepper. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, salted water. When done, drain and transfer to serving plates. Add the courgette mixture, then top off with the spinach balls and sprinkle with fresh parmesan.