You can pick up a packet of spinach any day of the week, any month of the year at any supermarket.
But spinach is at its best in the spring when it’s freshly picked with the roots and leaves still bearing tell-tale signs of mud and dirt.
Spinach is an early arrival – it’s not fond of hot days – and those spear-shaped leaves carry a hint of bitterness and an almost metallic tang to them.
Those bitter notes are stronger if spinach is eaten raw in salads but cooking tempers and mellows its flavour.
The only problem is that a massive bunch of spinach reduces down to only a fraction of its former size once it hits the heat. But it’s worth it. With a drizzle of olive oil and some garlic, sauteed spinach is the perfect speedy side dish.
The most arduous task when cooking spinach is cleaning the leaves. You need to change the water several times to make sure you’ve removed all the mud.
Even then, you’ll likely find a leaf or two with a rogue dusting of dirt. But that’s a small price to pay for something that truly tastes of spring.
Baked pasta shells with new season spinach and ricotta
250g conchiglioni rigati (medium sized-shells)
3 large bunches of spinach, 500-600g
2 x 680g bottles crushed passata
2 cloves garlic, minced
3tbsp olive oil
Chilli flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 175C. Remove the stems from the spinach and place the leaves in a salad spinner. Wash the spinach leaves scrupulously, ensuring you remove all the dirt and mud. Spin the leaves so they’re largely dry with only a small amount of water still clinging to the leaves. Place the leaves in a pan and wilt over high heat. Remove the spinach, drain and squeeze the leaves to remove any excess water. Chop the leaves, mix with the ricotta and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
To make the tomato sauce, saute the garlic in 3tbsp of olive oil in a pan until golden, not brown. If using chilli flakes add them now. Pour in both bottles of tomato passata. Fill the empty bottles with a small bit of water, screw the tops on and give the bottles a shake to loosen any remaining bits of tomato. Pour into the tomato sauce. Give a stir and let simmer for about 15 minutes.
While the tomato sauce is simmering, cook the pasta according to the package instructions to al dente – about 10 minutes. Drain. Spoon a large ladleful of tomato sauce onto the bottom of the casserole dish. Working quickly, stuff each shell with a tablespoon or two of the ricotta and cheese filling. Place filling side up on top of the tomato sauce. Repeat until all the shells are filled and nestled in the pan. Pour over the remaining sauce.
Cover the pan with aluminium foil and place in the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes until the sauce is gently bubbling. Serve the shells with a grating of parmesan cheese on top.