A dear friend of mine has recently been having a somewhat rough time of it. One of those lows that life seems to throw in our path every now and again with a raised eyebrow and a look that says: “Yeah? Huh huh? What you gonna do about it?”
It’s at these points where we generally have two choices: either cry and go home, or… roundhouse life in the groin Tony Jaa-style, wipe your hands theatrically on your pants and walk on whistling a happy tune, and if things could explode in slow-motion while you’re doing this, so much the better.
I’m happy to say that my friend is doing the second one.
But still… that doesn’t mean that every now and again we don’t all need someone to take the world’s decision-making off our hands, sit us down in a corner, stick a monster glass of wine in our hands and then feed us a lot of something. Preferably with cheese in it. And also preferably stopping to say “The Bastards!”, and “How could they?” at all the right moments. Jewish moms have known the secret of this for centuries, which is what probably keeps the psychological community comfortably in BMWs and nice houses in Blairgowrie – mostly because of what this does to their daughter-in-laws.
Maybe it’s because I don’t generally have a lot else to offer in these situations (I can’t for instance send people on a Caribbean cruise to take their minds of the woes of the world, and I’ve never been to a strip club so that’s not really within my range either), but I’ve always been a monstrous believer in the power of food as a way to escape from one’s pain and turmoil, even if it is for just a short while. I’ve written about this before this year, so don’t really want to harp on about it all over again – other than to say that this sort of thing probably makes me even happier than the people I’m cooking for, so actually the joke’s totally on them. Nyah nyah.
Also – I know this is two pastas in a row on the blog should finally shatter any illusions any of you might have that this is a well-thought-out and considered exercise, executed with precision and forethought, other than the improvised shambles that it really is.
Three Cheese Cannelloni (for 4)
Okay – this recipe was a somewhat cavalier affair, and as such the measurements are completely vague and mostly based on quantities provided by the punnets and packets of things I had lying around in the fridge. It’s also incredibly rich. I know it. So feel free to adapt a less-fat-oriented version of this, or alternatively just shake your head and quietly judge me for chronic dietary irresponsibility. I don’t care. I ran 4kms this morning and I feel fine.
Also there is bacon in this recipe – but it can very easily be left out to make a vegetarian option. It’s mostly just there because I felt that three types of cheese and half a bottle of red wine hadn’t quite made this excessive enough, and it just needed something to push it over the edge.
1 standard pack of cannelloni tubes
1 red onion
1 punnet of portebellini mushrooms
1 wedge of blue cheese
6 or 7 rashers of bacon (optional)
A handful of fresh thyme, leaves stripped – stalks discarded
1 tub of mascarpone cheese
Tomato and red wine sauce
2 stalks of celery
1 handful of baby carrots
1 brown onion
tomato passata, or tin of tomato paste
200 mls of red wine
1 chopped chili (optional)
2 cloves of garlic – finely chopped
2 tbpns butter
three quarters of a cup of flour
200 grams of butter
3 cups of warm milk
2 anchovy fillets
Well matured cheddar cheese.
What do do
This is a fairly PT-intensive exercise – so having people around while you’re doing it is always a plus – because you can get them to do all the finnicky annoying bits, like stripping thyme leaves or stuffing cannelloni tubes.
Start off by stripping the leaves off your handful of thyme stalks. Then slice up your red onion. Get a flattish tray, cover it with a sheet of tinfoil, the clump the mushrooms and onions together, sprinkle over your thyme, a bit of salt and pepper and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Then lay out the rashers of bacon around the outside – like a border if you will. Get the oven onto about 200 degrees celsius, and pop in the tray until the bacon is crisped up on both sides – which should take about 20 minutes or so. At which point the mushrooms and onions should also be nicely softened up. If they aren’t – just remove the bacon and leave the veggies in there for another couple of minutes until nicely roasted and fragrant.
While that’s all going on, it’s time to turn to the wine sauce. Finely, finely chop up the celery, brown onion, carrot, garlic, chili and the two tomatoes (those you can keep a bit chunkier). In a medium-sized pot, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and then lob everything in there. Let it all sizzle and soften up for about ten minutes or so, stirring so that nothing catches, and when it’s getting really nice and fragrant, add a big pinch of the dried oreganum. Keep stirring (maybe adjusting the heat lower if it’s getting too excited), and add a good squeeze of tomato passata (about two heaped tablespoons should do it). Stir it in, and once everything has been coated in the tomato paste, add the whole cloves and the wine. Right, now that you’ve got everything in there – you need to get the heat to a point where everything is simmering gently and then leave it until the wine has reduced by about half and starting to take on a slightly more silky quality – maybe about half an hour or so, depending on your pot and stove-top. And be sure to give it a bit of stirring love every now and again and checking its progress.
Now, take your roasted onions, mushrooms and crispy bacon and chop it up so that it’s all nicely mixed together. Then it’s time to haul out those leeks and slice them thinly as well, keeping them close at hand. Heat up a pan (you shouldn’t need to add any oil), and throw in the mushrooms, bacon and the fresh leeks and get it all stirred about – making sure to keep the heat low enough that its not going mad in that pan – you should be happy with a gentle sizzling. Crumble in the blue cheese bit by bit so that it’s melted in and coating everything nicely. Once it’s all melted in, then stir in the mascarpone so that it all gets creamy and thick. Have a good taste to see if the creamy/blue cheesy balance is right – and then season to taste.
This is where you’ll need helping hands: delicately start spooning your creamy/mushroomy/bacony/blue cheesey mix into the cannelloni tubes and lay them neatly together into a baking tray that’s been rubbed with just a bit of olive oil. You should have enough mix to finish all the tubes, but it’s not a train-smash if you’re a bit over or under – just keep going until you’ve used up all the stuffing.
By this point, the red wine sauce should be approaching a lovely silky thickness. If it isn’t – just hard boil it for a minute or two until it’s reduced further. Once it’s feeling nice and saucy – haul it off the heat, and either using a stick-blender or a conventional blender, pulse it a couple of times just to get the ingredients a bit smoother. Put it back on the heat, add the butter, stir it in then set aside.
Now – you’ll need two more fresh pots, one in which to warm up your milk, and another to melt the butter – both for the bechamel. Once the butter is melted, add the flour stirring it up quickly. As the butter has absorbed all the flour, add the warm milk – and with a whisk, start beating at it vigorously until it’s nice and smooth. Add the two anchovy fillets and carry on whisking so that they break up and are integrated into the bechamel. This is the secret to this sauce – as you’re not really going to taste the anchovy as such – but it’ll just give a lovely rich salty quality that just can’t be beaten. Once it’s nice and smooth – you’re ready to rock.
Spoon the red wine/tomato sauce over the cannelloni tubes so that everything’s covered evenly, and then delicately add the bechamel over that. Then finely grate your mature cheddar evenly over the lot and pop it in the oven, set to 180 degrees celsius for about 40 minutes, after which the cheese/bechamel topping should be nicely browned and bubbling pleasantly.
Take it out the oven, sprinkle with the wild rocket leaves – plunk that hot tray on the table and let people just help themselves.
Phew. I need a glass of wine after writing all that out.