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To my astonishment, it seems that it’s been almost a month since we last ate pasta. For a pasta lover like me this is practically unheard of and explains the craving I’ve had for most of the week.
A simple puttanesca or carbonara really wouldn’t have been fitting in these circumstances so I started thinking of dishes that required a little more time and energy. Lasagne was my first and obvious thought, it’s my favourite pasta dish and I particularly love the extra depth of flavour that the ragu takes on from baking in the oven.
I had a whole day to devote to cooking today though so decided to make the most of the opportunity and explore something new. I initially opted for a lasagne made with a veal ragu but sadly the butcher only carries Dutch veal which we both avoid.
After further consideration, I decided on cannelloni. We’ve only ever made spinach and ricotta cannelloni (although this early DD entry was based on a cannelloni recipe which, helpfully, I omitted) so I was keen to do a meat version and explore some different flavour combinations, settling on a combination of minced beef and pork.
1 onion, finely diced
1 carrot, chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic, crushed
700g minced beef and pork
Generous scraping nutmeg
2 tablespoons chopped herbs (I used sage, thyme, parsley and rosemary)
200ml beef stock
2 tablespoons worcester sauce
2 tablespoons tomato puree
To make the ragu, start by sweating the onion, carrot, celery and garlic with some salt and the bay leaves. I do this gently, with a lid on, for about 10 minutes – basically until it’s just about to start browning. Remove from the pan and set aside.
In the same pan, add a little more oil, add the meat, season and brown. When this is done, add the reserved ingredients back to the pan and combine. Season lightly with a little more salt and a generous twist of black pepper.
At this point, I’m not sure if it matters a huge amount what order the ingredients go in but I like to add the dry ingredients like the nutmeg and the herbs first so the meat can really absorb them. Then I’ll add the worcester sauce and the concentrated stock (unless you’re using fresh stock, obviously!) and allow the meat to suck up those up for a few minutes before adding the really wet ingredients.
So, if you’re using the same (non-scientific!) method, the next step is to deglaze with the Madeira (you could of course use wine or sherry) and allow it to bubble for about 30 seconds before adding the water (that makes up the 250ml of stock) and the milk.
At this point it looks like a huge amount of liquid and, as happened today, sometimes the milk will look as if it’s curdled. Don’t worry about the appearance; once it’s reduced down then everything will combine and you’ll be left with a rich, velvety sauce. I had plenty of time today so left the sauce to reduce down on a very low heat for four hours. I think if you’re using milk then it really needs this amount of time to combine properly and for the milk to properly tenderise the meat. Using milk makes a huge difference to the texture and I think it’s really worthwhile, if you don’t have that amount of time then it’s probably best to leave the milk out.
The recipes I consulted varied drastically on the use of tomatoes; I love the combination of meat ragu, tomatoes, pasta and bechamel though so decided to include them. I used my normal method and chopped up six large tomatoes, added them to a saucepan with some oil and salt and cooked them down until I had the consistency I wanted. This took about half an hour – after about 20 minutes I added some tomato puree just to thicken slightly.
I use an all-in-one method for bechamel. There are plenty of other versions, the longer ones usually including bay and nutmeg but I didn’t think that was necessary today given all the other flavours that were going on. I’m also not very good at making proper bechamel and I know the all-in-one method works for me.
salt and pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan, stir continuously until the contents have come to the boil and thickened. Cook for a further three minutes.
Luckily, Stephen was home by this point as this is really a two-person job. We blanched the cannelloni tubes in boiling water for four minutes before filling with the ragu sauce. This part is tricky but we improvised with a Ziplock back that had been snipped at the bottom, in place of a piping bag. The tubes were then layered in the bottom of the dish and topped with the remaining meat ragu and the tomato sauce. The bechamel sauce was then poured over the entire contents of the dish and topped with plenty of grated Parmesan before baking in the oven for 30 minutes.
That all sounds incredibly labour intensive but it really wasn’t, although it is very much a two-stage job. I cooked the ragu and made the tomato sauce this morning and then made the bechamel sauce and stuffed the pasta later on in the afternoon (with Stephen’s help). It could all be done reasonably far in advance and then left in the fridge until needed if you wanted to get ahead.
It’s definitely worth the time and effort although you’ll need plenty of patience as well. The smell of the ragu simmering away all day was glorious but a real testament to my willpower! As I said before, I’ve no idea how authentic this version is as the recipes I found varied so much, from the use of tomatoes to the combining of the ragu and bechamel before filling the cannelloni tubes. I simply took the elements I liked from each recipe and combined them to come up with this recipe. It worked out well though and we were both happy with the result, the ragu was intensely savoury from the herbs but the Madeira and nutmeg added a sweet note too.