This week marks the beginning of the meat category. Now, as stated last week, I am sort of nervous for these next few weeks because I am not a big fan of touching/handling raw meat. I try to avoid touching raw meat at all costs actually, because, for me, it is a texture thing and I also dislike the look of it when it is raw. However, I need to put this fear aside for the sake of me learning how to cook.
I come from a big Italian family. That being said, we eat a lot of pasta –probably 2-3 times a week. As a result, I wanted to find a pasta recipe that not only incorporated meat, but also incorporated many new cooking skills. Now, there are many different kinds of pasta so somehow I needed to narrow down my search. In conversation with my family, my mom stated that stuffed pasta dishes are usually more complex. During our conversation, I searched through our pantry to see if any particular pasta stood out to me, and in particular, to see if we had any pasta that could be stuffed. We had packages on packages of spaghetti and penne; however, at the very back of the cupboard we had cannelloni shells. For those of you that don’t know, cannelloni are cylindrical shaped pasta that is generally stuffed with either meat or vegetables. This was exactly what I was looking for. Cannelloni is definitely going to be more of a challenge. Now that I decided what noodles I wanted, I needed to find the recipe. I went onto Google, like how I always do, and typed in Cannelloni recipes. I clicked the first link, which happened to be a food blog called taste.com, and to be honest the recipe looked very good and the directions were very easy to follow. Truthfully, the picture drew me in. I looked it over a few times and I honestly felt like I didn’t have to look any more. My mind was made up; I was making Ricotta and Spinach Cannelloni with Béchamel Sauce.
Before I started cooking I wanted to make sure that I felt confident in the ingredients as well as the directions and what was ultimately asked of me. Going through the recipe the first thing that I wanted to inquire on was what is Béchamel sauce? For some reason, I feel like this is a white cream sauce because I believe I have heard of it before on TV. Anyways, before I started to make anything I wanted to make sure I knew what it was.
Well would you look at that, I was actually right! Béchamel sauce is also known as white sauce, and it is made from a roux (butter and flour) and milk or cream. It is considered to be one of the mother sauces of both French and Italian cuisine. This website was very helpful in describing Béchamel sauce. As well, it even provides a recipe for how to make it. I just gradually skimmed over the recipe because there was a recipe for this particular sauce in the dish that I am making.
Another thing that I wanted to inquire on before I started cooking obviously related to meat. How do you poach chicken breast? This is a serious question because honestly, I have no idea. I found this website to be particularly helpful, since it provided a step-by-step with clear and concise directions. Basically, you start with boneless, skinless chicken breasts and place them in either a pot or a pan. Then add enough water so that you cover the chicken breasts with at least two inches of water. If you wish, you could add some aromatics such as onions, carrots or celery, or you could just season with basic salt and pepper. Next, place the pan in the oven and cook for approximately 30 minutes –during this time the water should be boiling. If you decided to place the chicken in a pot on the stove, bring the water to a boil and simmer for about 15-20 minutes. At this time, take the chicken out of the oven or remove from the stove and let the chicken breasts sit in the hot water for another 5-10 minutes. After going through these directions, it actually didn’t seem that bad. Now the task of poaching the chicken isn’t the issue for me, it is actually placing the chicken in the pan that I am nervous about.
The last thing that I wanted to inquire about before I started cooking was how to stuff the cannelloni without cracking the shell? Was there a certain technique? Well I was about to find out. This video seemed to be helpful. The reason I say seemed is because the video did not seem to capture everything that he was doing. I looked at other videos as well, but this one appeared to be the best. Anyhow, according to the video, the best way to stuff cannelloni is with a spoon. Basically, using the spoon you scoop and fill one end of the shell, than when you can’t fit anymore filling you switch to the other end of the shell and repeat. The goal is that the filling should meet in the middle. As well, you can pack the shells more tightly by using the end of the spoon. This seems fairly reasonable but we will just have to wait and see.
After going over some basic techniques that will help me with this recipe I felt more confident. However, before I started to cook I needed to make sure that I had all of the ingredients. Thankfully, we had everything that I needed, which in the end saved me a trip to the store.
2 packages of frozen spinach, thawed, drained
300g fresh ricotta
200g feta cheese, crumbled
2 white onions, thinly sliced
16 or more dried cannelloni tubes
2 cans chopped tomatoes
3-4 chicken breasts
4 cups of milk or cream
1 dried bay leaf (optional)
1 onion, coarsely chopped
½- cup plain flour
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and Pepper
½-cup finely grated Parmesan cheese or any other type of cheese.
Directions: As you will see, I added to and modified this recipe a tad
While preparing the filling preheat oven to 300 degrees. In a large bowl, combine spinach, ricotta, feta and onions. After I combined the following ingredients into a bowl I noticed that there were hardly any vegetables. As a result, I added celery and red peppers to the filling. I washed and finely chopped the celery and peppers and mixed them in with the other ingredients. Season with salt and pepper. This mixture is going to be the filling for the cannelloni. After I finished the filling I set it aside in the fridge.
Place the chicken breasts in either a pan or casserole dish. Cover with water completely and place it in the oven to poach for approximately 20-30 minutes. The water should be boiling. Once chicken is cooked all the way through remove from the oven and let it sit to cool. Once the chicken has cooled chop finely and then add to the filling mixture. To be completely honest, the task of handling the chicken was actually not that bad. However, this is partly because the chicken breasts were frozen so I did not really have to feel 100% raw and slimy chicken.
Before starting to fill the cannelloni, generously apply butter to a pan. This process will hopefully prevent the shells from sticking to the pan. Once the pans are buttered, and using a spoon, gently fill/stuff each cannelloni tube with the mixture. Place the cannelloni in a single layer in the pan until all tubes have been filled. As I was stuffing the cannelloni I found that the spoon was just not working for me. As a result, I tossed it away and just started to use my fingers. Basically, I blocked one end of the cannelloni with my index finger so that the mixture didn’t come out while I was stuffing it. Then with my other hand, I gently stuffed the filling into the opposite end. You want to stuff as much in the cannelloni as possible, making sure not to crack the shells. I found that the less I stuffed in at once the lesser my chances of cracking the shells. That being said, this was a very time consuming task because I was really being careful and stuffing little at a time. Once the pan is filled, set aside and begin to make the sauce.
To make the Béchamel sauce, combine milk or cream, bay leaf (optional) and onion in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Strain milk through a fine sieve. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over high heat until foaming. Add the flour and cook, stirring for 2-3 minutes or until the flour becomes grainy. Remove from heat and add the milk mixture. Use a whisk to stir and combine. Place back over medium heat and cook stirring constantly for 5 minutes or until the sauce begins to boil and thicken. Remove from heat and add nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add half the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Along with the Parmesan cheese, I also added Swiss cheese because I love the rich flavor. As well, I wanted to thicken it a little more because for some reason after everything was finished my sauce did not seem to come together as nicely, but after I added the Swiss cheese in it thickened more.
Once the sauce is complete, pour it evenly over the cannelloni. Shake the pan to distribute it. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. I also, added the remaining Swiss cheese as well. If desired, place the chopped tomatoes either underneath the sauce or on top of the sauce. Instead of tomatoes I decided to place mushrooms on top for some texture. Place in the oven for an hour and a half or less, until heated through and golden brown.
This was actually very tasty! It was gooey, creamy and full of flavor. However, this was not the healthiest of dishes due to all of the cheese and the sauce, so it was a good thing I guess that I added the celery and peppers early on in the recipe. Speaking of the sauce…oh my! It was very good, yet rich. But that didn’t seem to bother me. My family really enjoyed this recipe as well. They thought that it was definitely a keeper; however, they thought that it needed the tomatoes for some juiciness, but they did like the mushrooms on top. I guess next time I will have to add the tomatoes. This dish is also very filling. I only had one or two shells and I was stuffed…no pun intended.
Since I worked with chicken this week, I plan on cooking with a different type of meat next week. Any suggestions?