Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni

Cannelloni is one of those dishes that few can hide their delight for. It is something wondrous and exciting. Pasta filled with vegetables or meat, slathered in sauce, topped with cheese and baked to perfection. It never fails to bring admiration and joy.

Making cannelloni can be the most nightmarish affair but armed with the right tool, the finicky stuffing of dried pasta tubes is made easy. Yes, using a piping bag is the only way. Another option is to use fresh lasagna sheets and roll them around the filling. Personally I find this method produces a double layer of pasta which is often very stodgy. I use dried pasta tubes that can go straight into the dish without pre cooking before stuffing. This is made possible by topping them with quite a loose sauce that can be absorbed during baking. This recipe is for the classic combination of spinach a ricotta, using a tomato sauce and bechamel for the topping. It requires a bit of juggling but the result is really beyond delicious.

Recipe (can serve 4, or 2 very hungry folk)

500g baby spinach
250g ricotta
1 large organic egg
60ml cream (optional)
50g parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and black pepper

Place spinach in a pot over a high heat with the lid on, allow to just wilt. Stir frequently. Remove and put into cold water immediately. Drain once cold and then squeeze out all the excess water. It will seem like there won't be enough but there is. Separate the leaves as much as possible and chop quite finely. Add to a bowl with the ricotta. Using a fork, mix together well. Add cream, egg and cheese, mix well again. Season quite liberally. Set aside until needed. This can be made in advance and will keep in the fridge for a couple of days. Bring it up to room temperature before using.

Tomato Sauce:
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 shallot, sliced
Few sprigs oregano
2/3 cloves garlic, 2 sliced finely, 1 crushed
olive oil
1 tsp worcester sauce
1tsp vegetable stock
Salt and black pepper

Fry garlic until golden in a little olive oil, remove before becoming too brown. Saute shallot until soft, add tomatoes and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, add oregano leaves, worcester sauce, stock, fried garlic and seasoning. Simmer for a few minutes. If the sauce is looking too dry, add up to half a cup of water and bring to the boil again. Remove from the heat and blitz until smooth. Add crushed garlic clove and stir through.

(You can also use the recipe for roast tomato sauce- see here)

Bechamel Sauce:
25g butter
2 tbsp flour
300ml organic milk
Salt and black pepper

Make just before putting the dish together. Melt butter over a medium heat in a small saucepan. Add flour, mix together and cook until it resembles wet sand. You can now either warm the milk and add it or just add cold milk, slowly incorporating it by whisking to avoid lumps forming. As the milk touches the flour butter mix it will begin to stiffen, so keep whisking and if it all goes horribly wrong, you can strain it through a fine sieve before using. Bring to the boil and then simmer for a few minutes until thickened. The bechamel should also be a medium consistency. Not too runny or very thick, it should evenly coat the back of a spoon. Use straight away, or cover the top with greaseproof paper to avoid forming a skin and reheat before using.

The construction:

Ricotta filling
Tomato sauce
Bechamel sauce
250-300g dried pasta tubes (cannelloni)
80g parmesan, grated

Preheat oven to 200C. Lightly oil a baking dish approx 20 x 28cm or similar. Rectangles work best. Cover with a thin layer of tomato sauce, then drizzle over with about a third of the bechamel. Fill a piping bag with the spinach and ricotta filling. Pipe filling into as many dried pasta tubes as you need to cover the base of the dish in a single layer. Making sure each tube is filled tightly. Pour remaining tomato sauce over the top. Top again with the rest of the bechamel, allowing the surface to become patterned. Sprinkle with parmesan and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Bake for 20-30 minutes until golden and bubbling. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

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