Even the most unadventurous cooks will have an Italian cookbook somewhere in the house. For all the hype and fashion around Korean or Israeli food, Italian cuisine remains what a huge amount of us want to cook and eat. The number of books I have on Italian cooking far outweigh any other country. I use a lot of these books frequently, but what is interesting is how few of them have real heart in the writing; despite glossy photos and beautiful typefaces, many will sit for months before I re-open them, as they just do not grab me.
There are, of course, a number of exceptions. The fabulous Anna Del Conte, a giant in the history of Italian cooking and Giorgio Locatelli, the incredible chef, both write with passion, authority and an incredible depth of knowledge. Another chef and writer who writes with this intrinsic authority is Antonio Carluccio. If Anna Del Conte is the Godmother of Italian cooking, then Antonio Carluccio must certainly be a contender for the Godfather. His numerous books all have one thing in common; passion. He has such a deep love for the food of his country, despite living in England since 1975, that it radiates through the page. You cannot help but be drawn in by his words; they are sp evocative that you cannot help but be enthralled. It also helps that his recipes are wonderful. I don’t know about you, but I have a small list of food writers and chefs who I know that when I try one of their recipes it will just work. This list really is small, but Antonio Carluccio is one of the people on that list.
In 1999, he opened the first ‘Carluccio’s Caffe’, an Italian restaurant with an authentic food shop combined. It has now grown to over 80 branches throughout the UK. Carluccio himself left the company and has now rejoined as a consultant. During the early 2000’s, the concept was fresh, innovative and the food was very good. Today they are ubiquitous on the high street and the quality of the restaurant food can be very hit and miss. The deli-sections remain a welcome source of excellent new season olive oil and delicious antipasti, but I have to admit; it is a long time since I sat down to eat inside a branch.
This should not detract from the excellence of some of the original recipes. This one for Penne Giardiniera was thrown together by Carluccio in the early days of the restaurant, when the chef was looking for a vegetarian pasta dish. It combines crispy fried spinach balls with a creamy courgette pasta sauce, spiked with flecks of chilli. It is rich, tasty and utterly satisfying and highlights the genius of the man who created it.
Antonio Carluccio’s Penne Giardiniera
For the spinach balls
75g breadcrumbs – dry
½ garlic clove very finely chopped
35g finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
black pepper and salt to taste
Nutmeg – a very small pinch
260g spinach-an average bag from the supermarket-cooked
Olive oil for shallow frying
For the pasta
1 medium sized red chilli- finely chopped
2 medium courgettes-finely grated
3 garlic cloves-finely chopped
175g freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
500g dried penne
1. Make the spinach balls. Cook the spinach in the microwave by piercing the bag and microwaving at full power for 2 and a half minutes. Let cool a little, then squeeze out all the water.
2. Chop the spinach coarsely.
3. In a bowl, place the chopped spinach, garlic, eggs, nutmeg and mix well, add in the Parmesan then half the breadcrumbs; season with salt and pepper.
Fry in hot olive oil until golden.
4. Cook the pasta to al dente in salted water for one minute less than the packet advises. Retain a few tablespoons of the cooking water before you drain it.
5. While the pasta is cooking, mix the grated courgette, chopped chilli and garlic.
6. Heat the butter and add the grated courgettes. Pan fry for about a minute or two. Add the cooked pasta into the pan and toss with the grated cheese. Add a little of the cooking water to get an unctuous, creamy-looking sauce.
7. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in a pasta bowl with spinach balls sprinkled over the top. Add extra parmesan if you wish.