A casserole dish that you can make on Saturday morning will pay off in those hot evenings ahead

This is my first attempt at cannelloni.

This is my first attempt at cannelloni.

One day I heard somebody talking about cannelloni. Then I watched Lidia make it on an episode of PBS “Lidia’s Italy”. I saw a recipe featured on my MSN mailbox. Then I was drinking coffee over an episode of Adam-12, and Malloy was going on and on about his favorite Italian restaurant, which apparently made one heck of a dish of cannelloni. 

So I got out my Time Life pasta book and got a recipe. I already know how to make my own pasta, and we’ve done lasagna many times. Cannelloni is similar, same logistics.

I cooked two boneless chicken breasts in a skillet, just left them simmering with a lid until they were slightly brown on both sides, then I turned them off and left them to cool while I made the pasta dough.

Pasta dough is simple, the more often you make it the easier and quicker it gets. A big batch for a casserole dish like this takes about three cups of flour, 4 eggs, a couple tablespoons of olive oil, and about a teaspoon of salt. I put  that all in a nice porcelain mixing bowl – I make a little well in the flour and set in the eggs, oil and salt –  and go at it with my hands, slowly working the flour into the eggs. It’s a smart idea to keep a little scoop of white flour handy so you can use it to rub the dough off your hands once in a while, it’s pretty sticky. But, believe it or not, you just have to keep kneading it and really squeezing it hard into a big ball – don’t give up! It will take 5 or so minutes.  When I have it in a big, smooth ball, I wrap it tight with a piece of plastic wrap or produce bag, and let it sit for about an hour and a half. 

I have a nice pasta press – Villa Ware, on Amazon.com – so cheap I thought it would never last under regular use, but here I am using it constantly, about five years later. At $50, that’s $10 year, for  fresh pasta, at least once a week.  I’ve gotten pretty good at dividing my dough ball into little portions, just the right size for a three or four inch wide strip of dough, that can either be run through the cutter into linguine or spaghetti, or used as is for lasagna, or cut into little square sections for cannelloni.

I press the strips and I hang them from wooden spoons propped under the dinner plates in my cabinet. I can boil them right away or leave them to dry. They don’t get brittle right away, so, if I’m careful handling them, I can pull them off the spoons and cut them as I want when I’m ready. 

The chicken breast needs to be minced. I could have ground them in my old meat grinder, but that’s too pasty for this dish –  better for ravioli.  I notice, Lidia Bastianich strips her chicken with her hands, I might try that, but instead I just chopped it up with a knife. I sauteed some onion and garlic – fresh from my garden – in a skillet, then added the chicken, stirred it in, set it aside to cool. This recipe calls for ricotta and spinach. I use frozen spinach because it’s easy. I just set it in a colander to thaw, and that’s really quick – and then I squeeze the water out with my hands. This is a perfect consistency to mix with the ricotta, nice and dry. When the chicken cools, I stir that in, along with some grated parmigiana. This is the filling.

You’d think boiling the noodles for all this would be a pain in the ass, but you just have to have a system, and it’s nice to have help. My husband and I attack these meals together, early in the day, after we finish our morning chores. 

For boiling noodles, we set a few paper towels on a nice clean counter, and fill a big pot with water and some ice cubes. We set another big pot of water to boil on the stove. When the water is at a rolling boil, we start putting the noodles in, whole. As they float to the top they are taken out and put in the ice water, and replaced with more uncooked noodles. The cooked noodles are taken out of the ice water and put on the paper towels to dry. Believe it or not, they don’t stick to the paper towels. If I had enough white linen towels, I’d use those, but paper towels are sure handy for a variety of sanitary cooking purposes.

When the noodles are cool and somewhat dry, they are rubbery and pretty easy to handle. Now we cut them into squares, and fill them with the chicken filling and roll them up like a burrito, setting them next to each other in a glass casserole lined with a thin layer of tomato sauce. They’re just like enchiladas, but you know, different.  Just like enchiladas, we cover them with sauce – we prefer just plain tomato sauce, the white sauce gives us indigestion – then wrap foil over the pan and put them in a 400 degree oven for about half hour to forty minutes.  When the sauce is good and bubbling, we cover them with mozarella cheese and put them back in for a few more minutes, til the cheese is bubbly. 

We got three pans of cannelloni, so you know, we’ll be eating them again tonight, and probably for lunch tomorrow. So, the work we put into the prep and cooking – oh yeah, and then the dish washing – will pay off for a couple of days, and I’m all happy about that. 

UPDATE: We had the last of it for lunch today, Tuesday the 21, and it was delicious. We got two dinners and two lunches out of it, and all we had to do was reheat. 

Thursday I’m going to make Chicken Cacciatore – Safeway had chickens for 89 cents a pound this past weekend.  I’ll keep you posted.

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