Have you ever been to Carluccios? It’s an Italian chain restaurant, headed up by old Antonio Carluccio, that I used to love love love when I was studying. It seemed so much more interesting and authentic to me than the other restaurants I had available to me in Oxford, where I lived at the time.
It was the first place I discovered the simple joys of dipping bread into great quality olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, and purchased porcini mushrooms, bags of giant tubes of penne and – a special mention – Carluccios focaccia. So salty and so densely olive oily, this is a seriously naughty bread, but really quite fantastic. The best thing was that you could pop in and grab a slice that was plenty large enough to fill you up for lunch for just £1 from the deli. I used to make a special journey down there just to pick some up. Indeed I became so infatuated with it, my flat mates made a ‘cake’ out of it for my birthday- with balsamic on the side, and candles jammed on top! Joyous.
I would persuade my mum or dad to take me when they came up to visit and would always order a particular dish, penne giardiniera. It’s the first time I can really remember eating a pasta dish that didn’t really have a sauce as such. I loved it. Lightly coated in buttery grated courgettes and topped with crunchy fried spinach balls, I couldn’t be persuaded to try anything else!
And so this weekend, I visited my mum in Brighton and all the (extended) family came together for the first time in ages. I offered to cook for everyone, 8 people in total – which isn’t something I often do. We had an evening of wine tasting ahead so I wanted something that wouldn’t kill our taste buds, so delicate flavours. I also needed something vegetarian, that would satisfy hungry young men too! And then I remembered penne giardiniera. It came as a memory from nowhere as I haven’t eaten it in years and years.
I looked it up online and found the exact recipe. I only made a few tiny tweaks – paccheri instead of penne and Panko breadcrumbs in place of ordinary ones for extra crunch. It was easy, perfect for a crowd and tasted exactly like that pasta dish i knew and loved. Delicious.
You will need:
For the spinach balls:
1500g raw spinach
1 clove of garlic, crushed
2 eggs, beaten
a pinch of nutmeg
100g Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated (check its veggie if necessary)
100g panko breadcrumbs
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1.5l sunflower oil
A little olive oil
For the pasta:
1kg paccheri pasta (or giant penne)
4 courgettes, grated
450g freshly grated Parmigiano reggiano
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1.5 red chillies, finely chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
A little olive oil
1 – Cook the spinach in batches in a large saucepan, with a little olive oil and salt; transfer the just wilted spinach into a large colander set over a bowl/sink to drain
2 – Drain the spinach well, squeezing out the liquid, and chop it quite finely
3 – In a bowl, mix together the chopped spinach, garlic, egg, nutmeg and Parmesan
4 – Add the breadcrumbs, taste the mix and Season to taste with salt and pepper
5 – Roll the spinach mix into equal sized balls and set aside
6 – Put a large (or two large) pots of salted water on to boil in salted water; add the pasta once the water is bubbling
7 – Now pour the sunflower oil into a large deep and wide frying pan; when you can throw in a breadcrumb or a little of the spinach mix in and it bubbles up, you are ready to add the spinach balls
8 – You also need to get the courgettes ready; melt the butter in a frying pan and add the garlic and chilli once it’s foamy
9 – Drain the pasta after around 10-15 minutes, when it’s al dente; toss with olive oil and keep it warm in its pot while you finish off the sauce and spinach balls
10 – Add the courgette to the butter when the garlic is just turning colour and cook for 3-4 minutes until it starts to give a little and shrink in the pan
11 – Keep an eye on the spinach balls- they are ready once the breadcrumbs turn golden; remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper
12 – Now mix the cooked courgettes with the pasta and cheese and spoon into a huge serving bowl; top with the spinach balls and serve immediately!