You may not know this but I’m a very lucky girl – I’m married to triathlete! There is an informal rule of thumb amongst those who take part which is that if you have done at least one triathlon in the last year then you have earnt the right to call yourself a triathlete; any longer ago than that and you’re pushing it a bit. I think the Blenheim Triathlon a few weeks ago was triathlon number three for this year, so Nik is definitely allowed to use the moniker triathlete and I am therefore allowed to boast proudly about my triathlete husband (though I must admit I am secretly quite relieved that he hasn’t decided to jack in the day job yet).
If you are going to put yourself through such a thing, then there are few more beautiful places to do it than the lake and grounds of Blenheim Palace. The event in question was a sprint distance triathlon; a 750m swim (alongside all of the lake’s regular inhabitants, pike, duck poop etc, yeuch) followed by a 20km bike ride and 5km run through the spectacular but undulating palace grounds. Obviously such exertions require a hearty meal the night before, which is where this courgette, lemon and goats cheese pasta recipe came in. We have had this before many such events and a few long distance bike rides, but it is also the perfect summer pasta recipe (especially if you are not up to anything athletic the next day and can enjoy it with a big glass of chilled white wine). Goats cheese and mint are a perfect complement to one another and the lemon zest adds a wonderful fragrance (often so much nicer than going straight for the juice). The courgette taste is not particularly prominent in this dish because of the long thin pieces and the mint and lemon flavours so you may even be able to get this one past those people who claim not to be keen on them.
This is a much loved, tried and tested dish so I can pass on plenty of little tips regarding the ingredient preparation. Make sure that you chop or julienne the courgette/zucchini as grating it releases too much moisture making the whole thing rather soggy and unwieldy. Grating the lemon zest a little more coarsely than you might normally really adds to the fragrant quality of the dish so use the kind of grater you would grate your cheese with rather than a citrus zester (also, if you find that your lemon isn’t up to much in the fragrance stakes then you can always add a squeeze of juice at the end). Adding the goats cheese at the end after you have dished up makes life much easier as otherwise all that spaghetti tangled together with sticky goats cheese is really difficult to pull apart and dish out (besides, it’s nice when it the cheese is only just melting). Finally, an excellent tip from Jamie Oliver for reducing the amount of fat in the recipe; as the pasta cooks, dip a mug into the pan to reserve an inch or so of the starchy boiling water. You can then use this to ‘loosen’ the recipe at the end instead of using lots of extra olive oil.
This is not an unhealthy dish with its wholewheat pasta and vegetables but if you are watching your weight then you could modify it by reducing the amount of pasta and adding extra courgette. The goats cheese is an excellent calcium source but make sure that you do some label reading to find a lower fat variety and consider cutting the quantity to 30g per person (the soft squidgy sort tends to be lower in fat than the type with the rind).
Notes for triathletes
A good carbo loading recipe contains primarily carbohydrate without too much of each mouthful taken up by fat or protein. The downside of this is that it can be a little dull; endless mouthfuls of pasta, hence the reason for a choosing a recipe like this that has lots of strong flavour/low volume ingredients such as the lemon zest, mint and chilli flakes. A low glycaemic index carb like wholewheat pasta is perfect for the night before an event, while high GI foods such as energy gels are better for providing that burst of energy that you need mid-event (BUPA have a quick intro to using the glycaemic index in sports nutrition).
Although the concept of carbohydrate loading has been around since the 60s there still doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to how and when it should be done and most of the information out there is for cyclists and runners but not triathletes. The best source of information I have found regarding nutrition for triathlons is the Australian Institute of Sport. Their sports nutrition web site is excellent and includes discipline specific factsheets for a huge range of sports and some really good recipes. For triathletes taking part in events that take around one to three hours (such as a sprint or olympic distance triathlon) they recommend reducing food intake slightly during your tapering week (to avoid weight gain during a time of reduced activity levels) and to consume “between 7 – 12g of carbohydrate per kilogram body weight for 24 – 48 hours prior to competition”. The longer the triathlon the longer the duration and quantity of carbohydrate loading. However, you need to use a bit of common sense alongside this information; for most amateur athletes this may be way more than you are used to eating, especially if one of the reasons you enjoy your training is because it helps you to manage your weight. To give you an idea, the wholewheat pasta that I use is fairly typical in composition and contains 62g of carbohydrate per 100g, and so a 75kg triathlete would be looking at consuming around 525g of carbohydrate in the 24 hours before the event, the equivalent of 860g of pasta (dry weight!). Not all of your carbohydrate need come from pasta (there are lower volume sources, particularly carbohydrate drinks) but if you are not customarily eating to fuel the several hours of high intensity training that professional athletes undertake every day of the week then this amount of food could leave you arriving at your event feeling a little less spritely and a little more weighed down than you wanted to be.
Recipe for Spaghetti with courgette, lemon and goats cheese
Serves 2 hungry people
200g wholewheat spaghetti (dry weight)
2 medium courgettes (zucchini), ends removed and then cut into matchsticks or julienned
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp finely chopped mint leaves
100g soft goats cheese, crumbled
zest of one unwaxed lemon, coarsely grated
optional - a pinch of chilli flakes
Black pepper to season
Boil a pan of salted water and put in the spaghetti.
Place the olive oil and garlic in a deep-sided frying pan or saute pan and heat gently from cold for a couple of minutes (adding the garlic when the oil is still cold stops it from burning so easily).
Add the courgette and lemon zest and heat for a few minutes longer (the lemon zest will release a fantastic fragrance as it gets warm). Meanwhile, reserve a little of the pasta cooking water as described above.
The courgettes need to keep a little of their crispness so take this pan off the heat at this point if the spaghetti isn't quite cooked. As soon as the spaghetti is cooked (with a little bite still there), add the mint and chilli flakes (if using) to the courgette mixture, followed by the drained spaghetti. If the mixture seems a little dry, this is the point at which to add a little of the reserved cooking water to loosen it up.
Dish out the pasta between two bowls. Season with black pepper and sprinkle with the goats cheese which will melt slightly.