Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni
Here is a bare-bones – dare I say almost ‘Pantry Staple’ – version for Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni. It makes use of frozen spinach and canned tomatoes in lieu of the fresh options and dried, oven ready cannelloni instead of fresh pasta. One ingredient which may not be a constant pantry staple is the ricotta, however given ricotta’s relatively decent shelf-life it is possible to have one floating around the refrigerator just waiting to be made into something sumptuous. The below recipe uses a tomato base which is then covered with the filled cannelloni and topped with a white sauce and cheese. I top the whole thing up with mozzarella but any grated cheese (such as parmesan) can be used in its place, alternatively grated cheese can be added to the white sauce turning it into a cheese sauce instead. The finished dish would go very nicely with a green salad or green vegetables (peas, green beans etc).
One of the keys to a successful cannelloni is balancing the flavours and seasonings between the different layers so that they complement each other. In the below recipe I focus on nutmeg, salt, and pepper as the ingredients used to enhance the stars of the show – the spinach and ricotta. As a result the tomato base is just that – tomato (not even any garlic!), and I opted for a white sauce over a cheese one. However, the recipe is ripe for adapting and tweaking. Do you want garlic and herbs in the tomato base? Go for it! Do you prefer a bit of heat and opt for dried chipotle flakes? Do it! Feel free to select your own line-up of supporting stars that work well together and uplift the main players and you should be away laughing.
If you follow the below recipe then I would recommend slightly under-salting each component (base, filling, and sauce), so that the total seasoning doesn’t combine to smack you in the mouth when the dish is completed.
How many cannelloni you fill (and therefore the size of pan needed) will depend on how much of the filling mixture you place in each one. I manage to fill 18 cannelloni, though I did not fill each one to capacity. If your unsure how much mileage you will get from the quantity of filling listed below, it may be worth filling the cannelloni and setting them aside until the mixture is used up. That way you’ll know how many filled cannelloni you’re dealing with and what pan to use. Bear in mind that the filling will eventually cause the dried pasta to soften so if you opt to do this then the pasta will provide a time limit to the operation.
How long the dish will take to prepare will depend on the level of multi-tasking employed. Even with multi-tasking maxed out, this isn’t really a quick meal suited for the mid-week. Having said that, if you make the base, filling, and sauce at the same time you will cut down on the total time – though it will require at least 3 concurrent pans on the stove top. I prefer to take my sweet time, making each part and then assembling the final dish which is why I consider it a weekend meal.
Finally, the below uses heated the milk that is infused with a bay leaf and some whole black peppercorns. I took this approach as I knew that (1) I had time to do so and (2) it makes for a really nice sauce. However this is optional, an alternative approach would be to measure out the milk before it is needed and let it loose the chill from the refrigerator before adding to the sauce.
Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni
1 tablespoon light olive oil
1 x 400g tin of tomatoes (preferably crushed, and Plum if possible)
Tomato paste (to taste)
Pinch of sugar (optional)
Salt (to taste)
Spinach and Ricotta Filling
1 tablespoon light olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
250g frozen spinach
250g ricotta cheese
50g parmesan, grated
c. 1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon ground Nutmeg (grated fresh from a whole nutmeg is best, but pre-ground also works fine)
Salt and pepper
250g box of cannelloni
75g all-purpose flour
Bay leaf (optional)
1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns (optional)
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon grated Nutmeg (grated fresh from a whole nutmeg is best, but pre-ground also works fine)
125g of fresh ball mozzarella, patted dry and thinly sliced
Setting the Stage
- If opting to use warmed, infused milk then now is the time to get this ready. Pour the 600ml of milk into an appropriately sized milk pan (or saucepan). Add the bay leaf and peppercorns (if using).
- Heat the milk gently over a low setting until it begins to warm but does not boil. Do not let it boil and do not let it burn! When a hazy mist begins to escape the surface of the milk, I take this as my cue to remove it from the heat but this might be too early/late for you, so keep an eye on it.
- Once warmed, remove from the heat and leave it to infuse.
- Heat the light olive oil in the frying pan (or appropriate saucepan) over medium heat until the oil is hot but not smoking.
- Add the canned tomatoes and stir the ingredients together. If the tomatoes are lacking in ‘tomato-ness’ and lean towards the insipid side then add tomato paste to perk the sauce up. Up to 1 tablespoon should do the trick. Bring it to a gentle boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes.
- Season to taste with salt and a pinch of sugar if necessary.
- Remove from the heat and set aside till assembly time. If you prefer a smooth tomato base, then puree the sauce once it has cooled a little.
- Heat the light olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat until hot but not smoking.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the diced onions. Saute until they turn translucent.
- Add the frozen spinach and incorporate it with the onion. Cover the pan and continue to cook until the spinach is defrosted, about 5 minutes. You may need to reduce the heat to ensure that the mixture doesn’t burn or stick to the saucepan.
- Once the onion is cooked and spinach is defrosted, remove from the heat and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Leave the onion and spinach mixture to cool for 5 minutes. I washed up the saucepan (and any other dishes roaming the kitchen) in this time so that it was ready for making the sauce.
- Add the grated parmesan to the onion and spinach mixture. Add the nutmeg (start with 1/8 teaspoon and increase as desired) and combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Once happy with the seasoning, add the egg and combine the mixture. Set aside until ready to fill the cannelloni.
- Remove the bay leaf and peppercorns from the milk (if used).
- In a large saucepan, heat the butter over medium heat until melted.
- Make the roux: add the flour and mix to combine the two (I use a whisk). Continue stir over the heat for 1-2 minutes until the flour ‘cooks out’, but don’t let it colour as this will be a white sauce base.
- Slowly add the milk to the roux, stirring while doing so. Gently whisk the mixture till it forms a smooth sauce.
- Cook the sauce until it begins to thicken, constantly stirring it so that it cooks evenly and doesn’t stick or burn. Depending on the heat of the milk, this may take 5-10 minutes. The final sauce will be relatively thick (thicker than the sauce used in Chicken a la King), but still pourable.
- Once cooked, season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste.
Assembly and Cooking
- Preheat the oven to 180*C (160*C fan) / 350*F.
- Pour the tomato base evenly into the designated pan.
- Fill the cannelloni: Piping bag method. Fill a piping bag with a large nozzle (which fits inside the diameter of the cannelloni tubes). Pipe in the filling for each cannelloni. A plastic sandwich bag with the corner snipped off can act as a makeshift piping bag.
- Fill the cannelloni: Spooning method. My preferred method, as it is easier on the washing up, though it can be messier. Using a teaspoon, fill the cannelloni with the mixture. If you have trouble getting the mixture down the tube, then use the body of the spoon to push the filling down (this is where it can get messy, but kinda fun at the same time). Alternatively, tap it gently on the bench to coax the filling further down the cannelloni. Another option is to part fill the cannelloni from one end, then turn it around and fill it from the other end.
- Place the filled cannelloni over the tomato base in rows.
- Pour the sauce over the filled cannelloni and spread it so that it covers all the pasta.
- Place the sliced mozzarella over the topping.
- Bake for 30-40 minutes, until it is browned and bubbling.
- Remove from the oven and let it cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.