Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gardener's Delight

What grow-your-own-ers don't always confess is that sometimes you are left with a glut of fruit and veggies that you actually just can't eat. I find this to be particularly true in the case of courgettes, which spring up in an almost cartoonish manner; you can practically hear animated popping sounds out in the garden as you pull back leaves to uncover yet another perfect little green specimen. The trick is to pick them while they're still small and sweet; rest on your laurels and the fruits of your labour will burst out of control and transform into increasingly grotesque oversized marrows. It's a sight that fills me with dismay, because the larger they become the more watery and less flavoursome they are, and I always feel so very wasteful turfing the product of a good six months of planting and growing and watering into the compost bin. What impedes my diligence is generally a lack of recipes and imagination that does not tally with this surfeit of zucca. This year I have vowed not to let any of my carefully-grown produce fall foul of such laziness and end up rotting among the eggshells and the juiced-out lemons. I have been rooting out recipes to beat the band, so you can expect to be bombarded with courgetteful postings on this blog over the next couple of months. But to start out with, I celebrated the first courgettes of the season using a recipe that I discovered and perfected during the summer months last year, one that used not one but two of my homegrown veggies: Antonio Carluccios's pasta with courgette sauce and spinach balls (from Simple Cooking), an old favourite in the Carluccio restaurant chain that appears as penne giardiniera on the menu. 

I was squeezing the very last out of my crop of baby spinach for this recipe; it's such a nutritious, rewarding veggie to grow, but you wouldn't want to be trying to feed a large family with your efforts, because it starts out a hearteningly springy haul of leaves, and then after a spell in some boiling water...

...well you're never going to get fat on that, are you?

Anyhow, to make the spinach balls, you need to squidge all the water out of your cooked spinach (2 minutes on the hob is all it takes) and then chop it up nice and neatly. Antonio is all about the quantities - it is a cookbook, after all - but I just worked with what I had and used my intuition in relation to what to add in where. 

Beat an egg, grate a load of parmesan and some nutmeg, add salt and pepper, the garlic is supposed to be puréed but I just grated a clove of it...

...the breadcrumbs are supposed to be fresh but I just hauled some out of the freezer, and it all gets mixed up with the chopped spinach. You need to achieve a texture that is nice and moist and juicy, but will still stick together sufficiently to roll into balls, so start out with a fairly minimal amount of breadcrumbs and add gradually to that until you get the texture just right. 

The fun bit: rolling the mixture up into little balls. 

Then you just need to pop them on the pan (with a good glug of olive oil on there) and brown them up nicely. 

Out to the garden with me to chop the first courgettes of the season. A minor thrill, I must admit. One of these days I will move my butt to do the whole stuffed courgette flowers thing; for the meantime, I'm afraid they will just have to meet their fate in the compost bin, rather than in my stomach.

The courgette sauce is a pretty straightforward operation. I used two courgettes, grated. 

1 chopped red chilli and 1 chopped garlic clove go on the pan for a minute, then joined by the grated courgettes. It all needs about 4 minutes.

In the meantime the rigatoni will be simmering away on the hob.

When it is cooked it goes into the pan with the courgette sauce, along with some of the pasta water to thin it out a little - all that parmesan can make it clumpy and stringy. As with the breadcrumbs, start with a little and keep adding - Antonio specifies 2 tablespoons of water in there, but if you go zealously pouring it in it could go all thin and watery. Yuck.

And there you have it: a very rewarding dish, one that will help make use of your homegrown veggies, fill you with lots of lovely green-food vitamins, and is thoroughly adequate for entertaining any vegetarians in your life - in fact, it's sufficiently substantial to distract the most hardened carnivore. Make friends with this recipe, it will serve you well.

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