Saturday, 9 June 2012

Courgette and Chilli Pasta with Crispy Spinach Balls

Over the five years or so that I've been gainfully employed, I've realized something staggeringly obvious. Something, it has to be said, which reveals that I am unutterably stupid and wasted months, if not years of my life. And if I can use this little patch of the internet to pass on this insight to even one person, then I'll feel like I've achieved something with my life. So here it is: there's no secret.

You see, I always felt that I understood the world of school and, later, university. You study, you read, you think, you write. Sometimes teachers agree with you, sometimes you're wrong or under-prepared, and sometimes you're just talking rubbish. But either way, you understand how to do well, and what you need to do to get better. If you fail to do it, then that's fine - but at least you know where you stand.

But for some reason, when I entered the world of work I was dazzled. I saw all these older people swanning around in suits and ties, talking knowledgeably about clients and strategies and objectives and stakeholders, and I felt very young, very green, and very under-qualified. I had spent four years of my life studying Classics, for god's sake- who was I to tell anyone what to do? 

So for years I kept quiet in meetings because I didn't feel that I had anything to contribute. If I did have to give an opinion I panicked, hoping against hope that I didn't sound too stupid. Basically, I thought that there was a secret to Work that everyone else knew - a code they'd cracked, a qualification they'd gained - and I didn't. I kept shtoom because I didn't want to be found out, or chucked out.

Then gradually, as I moved from job to job, became older and more disillusioned, I realized the truth. NO ONE really knows what they're doing. Sure, doctors and accountants and people like that have to pass an exam before they can do their jobs, but in my line - where you can turn up with an Arts degree and a hopeful smile - there really is no secret. Everyone's just blagging.

Not blagging, really, because that word implies that they're deliberately pretending to be something they're not. But there's no right or wrong. You're paid to have opinions, based on nothing more technical or difficult than what you think. I'm sure this sounds ridiculously obvious to anyone else, but it's taken me five years to realize it. Why shouldn't I be the person to take on a difficult job, write something important or go into the scary meetings? There's no secret that I'm missing. No one else really knows what they're doing either.

Where I've never really felt like an imposter is in the kitchen. I have a go at difficult recipes, fancy pastries or death-defying caramels, without fear - because there's never that much at stake. What's the worst that can happen? Chuck it in the bin, make some toast instead. If it does work out, all the better.

This is a perfect example of having a go at a restaurant dish in our own home. Every single time I go to Carluccio's - without exception - I always order their huge penne with courgette, chilli, parmesan and deep fried spinach balls. Delicate, delicious, my mouth is watering at the thought of it. But the other day we had courgettes in the fridge, chillis in the garden and we just thought, why not? So I googled for a recipe, altered it to our tastes (we like a higher sauce: pasta ratio, so made the full quantity of sauce and only half the amount of pasta) and it was perfect. As good as in the restaurant, a hell of a lot cheaper and in our own home. Why can't Work be as easy as that?

Courgette and Chilli Pasta with Crispy Spinach Balls
Adapted from Antonio Carluccio's recipe here

Serves 2

For the spinach balls
- 100g bag of fresh spinach (in future we'd use the frozen stuff - already blanched and chopped, and you get a lot more of it)
- 1 garlic clove, crushed or very finely chopped
- 45g fresh white breadcrumbs (one slice of bread, whizzed)
- 1 egg, beaten
- a few grinds of salt and hefty amounts of black pepper
- pinch of nutmeg
- 25g freshly grated parmesan

For the pasta and sauce
- 200g dried pasta of your choice
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 2 courgettes, finely grated (the food processor was amazing for these)
- olive oil
- salt and lots of black pepper
- parmesan

If you're using fresh spinach for the spinach balls, blanch the leaves in a pan of boiling water for 1-2 minutes then drain, dunk in a bowl of cold water and drain again. Squeeze out as much of the water as possible with your hands, then finely chop (I did it in the food processor and chucked the garlic in at the same time). OR do what we're going to do next time, and use some of that frozen spinach that comes in pellets - already blanched, already chopped, and saving you from the depressing experience of seeing great handfuls of spinach reduced to a blob the size of your fingernail. (edited to add - we tried it with frozen spinach and it was brilliant, much easier. I thawed the spinach in the microwave, pressed it in a sieve to get rid of excess water, then proceeded as before. Use frozen spinach!)

Whichever type of spinach you've gone for, mix it with the rest of the ball ingredients until it all binds together. You need the mixture to hold its shape, so add more water or breadcrumbs as needed, then roll it into walnut-sized balls.

At this point, Antonio says to shallow fry the balls gently in olive oil over a low heat for 4-5 minutes each side. We did this, but to be honest they never really got crispy enough - if you want that incredible crunch you get in the restaurants, I reckon you've got to deep fry them. That's what we'll be doing next time, giving them 5 mins or so or until golden-brown all over - do let me know if you try it. (edited to add - we tried deep-frying for 2-3 minutes this weekend, and they were much better. Definitely deep fry them!)

When they're done, drain on kitchen paper and keep warm. If you couldn't do them all at once, repeat with the remaining balls.

Boil some water for the pasta and set it on the heat to cook according to the instructions on the packet. Note that when it's done, you're going to want some of the cooking water - so don't pour it all down the sink without saving a mugful first.

For the pasta sauce, heat some olive oil gently in a frying pan, chuck in the garlic and chilli and cook for a couple of minutes or until soft but not coloured. Then add the courgettes, and fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the parmesan, salt and pepper, mix well, then stir in a few spoonfuls of the pasta cooking water (see, told you you'd want it) until the sauce is the right sort of consistency. Mix with the drained pasta, serve and plonk some spinach balls on top - plus extra parmesan, depending on how greedy you're feeling.


  1. this sounds lovely! I also like your comments about work, but I still feel like in in the 'everyone but me knows what they are doing' phase, so its reassuring to know other people have felt the same way! x

  2. Hi Emma - thank you! And phew, glad to know I'm not the only one...


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