Cannelloni can be such a wonderful surprise ... long tubes of pasta encasing some combination of meat and sauce hiding in a coating of cheesy goodness. They can also be a delicious way of exploring different taste combinations, which is exactly how I approached them earlier this week. I love the Catalan recipe for Canalones a la Catalana - cannelloni stuffed with chicken livers, ground meat, chicken breast, leeks and onion, so I decided to play with the recipe a bit ...
I started with a mince of onion and garlic that got a slow sauté in a small amount of olive oil.
I broke up four lengths of Italian sweet sausage into small chunks and then added it to the onions, cooking it and breaking it up even smaller as it cooked up.
I added six chicken tenders, about the equivalent of one boneless chicken breast, cut into very small pieces and browned that up with the sausage and onions. Then, I turned this mixture into a bowl and seasoned it with red pepper flakes, thyme, parsley, kosher salt, and black pepper.
Baby spinach leaves got a wash and spin out in the salad spinner and then a coarse chop. I used the same pan that had the meat and onion sauté, adding a bit more olive oil and proceeded to wilt the spinach. Then I tossed that with the meat mixture and set the filling aside.
I admit. I nibbled a little, just to see how things were progressing. It tasted pretty good.
Next, I made a white sauce. You know the drill - a roux, some milk, some whisking, and some spices. In this case, I added thyme, parsley, a bit of nutmeg, and black pepper. I made about three cups of sauce because I planned to use some to moisten up the filling before stuffing the cannelloni. The rest was slotted for topping the pasta with a bit of cheese.
Then, I cooked the pasta ... just until it was major al dente. The pasta still held its form when I picked it up. I say this because a friend complained to me that she hated working with manicotti noodles/cannelloni noodles because they always were too slippery and soft and tore when she tried to fill them. They gotta be al dente and that's that. And that's another reason you make extra sauce ... the al dente noodles soak some of it up as they continue to cook when you put the dish together and get it in the oven for the finish.
So ... stuffing the cannelloni. I put the filling into a plastic Ziploc bag and snipped the bottom corner. I'll be honest. It was a two person job. Silent Bob held the cannelloni and I squeezed the filling into them. It worked really well. Then I chopped up that one lone noodle left when we ran out of filling and tossed it in on top. I used an oblong baking casserole dish and I drizzled a bit of the white sauce in the bottom before placing the cannelloni. The rest was drizzled on top.
The final topping was a generous sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese, some parsley and some sweet paprika. Then, it was popped into a 400° F for about 35 minutes.
It came out cheesy, juicy, bubbly, and really tasty. Enough said.