Pastamania with Stuffed Sleeves
It seems I am unable to pass the pasta shelves with picking up some treat, sometimes with no clear idea in mind and sometimes with very definite ideas. This week passing by the shelves, a 250 g packet of Granoro’s No. 76 Cannelloni won my attention and my thoughts immediately turned to ricotta and spinach as the desired stuffing. Already my much better half was talking up a minced beef dish with potato I will write up shortly, so for variety’s sake, the palate cleansing properties of ricotta seemed like an advantageous idea. Not that the dish lacks depth or richness – it has depth of flavour, just in a contrasting way.
Just like Mac n’ Cheese and Cauliflower Cheese, I have spent decades avoiding Cannelloni. Mostly as the above won 1960s and 70s fame (infamy) as frozen, pre-cooked ‘TV’ dinners with dubious ingredients. The opposite of home cooking and an icon of ‘convenience’ foods that occasionally were served as school dinners, the horrors of which, can hardly be imagined by those who did not go to a good British school in that era.
Having tacked my very own Mac n’ Cheese and Cauliflower Cheese and found them to be good and indeed welcomed by my better half, I decided to embark on my home made Cannelloni and like the above, made with ingredients one can recognise in the shops, is both tasty, nutritious, wholesome and easy to make. In essence, it is a three-part operation with a final assembly; the tomato salsa and the béchamel can be made in advance, so prep time can be easily managed to suit one’s schedule. Stuffing the ‘sleeves’ with the ricotta/spinach/cheese mix is a 5 minute operation, especially when piped in with an icing bag. Minimum fiddle required, the other ingredients layered in, and off to the oven.
To explain the ‘sleeve’ reference; Manicotti are the machine extruded cylinders of pasta, hence ‘sleeves’, whereas strictly speaking, Cannelloni refers to discs or sheets of pasta rolled around a stuffing, which can be vegetable, dairy, seafood or meat. For those who have had a hundred generations or more of nonas who have stuffed vine and cabbage leaves, clearly this not a problem. Lacking origami skills myself, along with a dolmades-skilled ancestry, the convenience of a cylinder to pipe the mixture in seems like a blessing.
1 Medium onion
Handful of oyster mushroom finely chopped (can be any type)
Garlic - 3 cloves chopped
1 x 400 g. tin of Mutti chopped tomatoes
250 - 300 ml. Passata
Handful of chopped green stuffed olives
Handful of pine nuts
Dash of chilli sauce
Dash of Lee & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce
Finely chopped basil leaves
Fry the finely chopped onion on medium-high heat until soft, and add the chopped mushroom. *When making a large quantity of salsa, I often go the whole hog and do a proper soffritto with carrot and celery. Add the chopped garlic and before it has chance to burn add the chopped tomato along with paste and passata along with the rest of the ingredients. It is not imperative, but I had the tiniest of leftovers of Greek thyme honey; the remains one can’t quite prize from the jar as it is such a thin film, but such a sin to discard. I boiled some water and dissolved the honey, popping that vital drop into the salsa. Nothing wasted! Let the mixture boil adding some water if necessary to keep fluidity, without being too thin a mixture and put down to just above a simmer. Slow and low will let the flavours develop.
One reason to make salsa in advance is to allow time for the slow cooking, though one can acceptably use the salsa immediately.
Once ready, if one has time, set aside and cool.
Milk (and/or cream)
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat.
Stir in the flour. Whisk in a little of the milk at a time, stirring continuously until you have a smooth, slightly thick sauce.
Remove from the heat; season with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg.
Again, this can be made in advance for several dishes.
Ricotta and Spinach mix:
2 x 250 g Ricotta
450 g Frozen, chopped spinach, drained and squeezed dry.
Handful of mozzarella
Handful of grated parmesan cheese
In a mixing bowl, place all the ingredients and mix with a spatula or wooden spoon until combined into a workable paste.
In an oven dish, while pre-heating the oven, spoon some tomato salsa covering the base and cut some Goat’s Cheese, Provolone or other cheese of one’s choice into rough cubes. Set the cubes aside.
Spoon the ricotta and spinach mix into a piping bag with a wide nozzle and fill the pasta tubes, one by one, placing them into the oven dish. Repeat until the dish is full.
Spoon béchamel over each tube, then repeat by covering that layer with tomato salsa.
Scatter the cubed cheese over the dish in an even scatter, followed by a thin layer of shredded Mozzarella, a final dust of Parmesan and some chopped basil leaves.
Place the dish in the oven at 350 degrees F, covered for 35 to 40 minutes. Uncover for 5 minutes and serve.
Minced beef or veal is probably the best-known alternative stuffing. If one was going down that route, 25% fat is imperative and combined with aubergine flesh, more mushroom, chopped black olives and some chilli flakes would be the meat alternative.