• Bute St Seafoodie

Crab and Leek Cannelloni

Updated: Apr 20

"Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song..."

Ringo Starr (1967)



Another brown crab meat creation here, this one starting with the idea of brown crab meat as a filling for cannelloni. But from there it's been something of an adventure, one which I care to share.


My sister-in-law always loved a recipe for "Leek Cannelloni with Lemon Thyme and Provolone Picante" in "Rick Stein's Food Heroes", a dish which my brother and I would make for her on occasion. But, boy, those occasions were few and far between - because although the individual elements of the dish, and indeed the dish itself, are quite straightforward, the recipe, as my brother puts it, "uses every pan you own" to make. Peculiarly, the part that isn't perhaps quite so straightforward is the sourcing of the provolone picante and lemon thyme.


Now, it was never my intention to use a cheese as 'characterful' as provolone picante in a dish featuring crab, so that puts that issue to bed. That notwithstanding, it has always been the case that I find myself treading very carefully in any situation when navigation through fish and dairy is the journey I find myself on. But Ricotta, by contrast, is so mild that it warrants little consideration so, for the cannelloni filling, along with leeks, it's perfectly suitable for the purpose. Equally, the Béchamel sauce as a topping, although dairy-based, is more or a carrier than a contributor - that is, until it becomes embellished - so a judicious touch of Parmesan seems to impart the appropriate savouriness without becoming the headline-making protagonist.

Because lemon thyme is not particularly readily available I initially used common thyme and lemon zest as the fragrances, but after a couple of iterations I had to concede that they weren't delivering the results I was aspiring for, and that Stein's lemon thyme really was what was required.


Where the challenge turned out to lie was in the texture of the sauce - the dish was consistently coming out too dry and increasing the amount of sauce wasn't helping. After some discussion with my ever-reliable goddess of Italian cuisine, the bellissima Manu (now co-founder of Pastadiva), we figured that the issue was that, with the dry pasta tubes that I was determined to use as opposed to rolling the savoury filling in softened lasagne sheets (it takes another pan out of the Stein equation!), the sauce had to be looser at the start (and I explain further in the recipe notes below).


When I explained my trials to my mother (who makes a mean cannelloni!), she immediately questioned whether I had any moist component at the base of the dish upon which the cannelloni tubes were sitting. At that stage the answer was no, though I had until that point been toying with, but not employing, the idea of a bed of spinach (spinach and Ricotta being a very common pairing in a meat-free cannelloni). And it was during my first meeting with an Instagram foodie friend, Matt, of @my_plates_or_yours, in the Bute Street farmers' market, that the idea of the spinach base became solidified. I am grateful for his encouragement! Matt, Manu and mum got this dish over the finishing line. Fabulous what you can achieve "with a little help from your friends"! And family.


You may be relieved to think that the story ends here (after all, how lengthy a yarn can be spun about the evolution of a cannelloni!?). Well, not quite! The climax of a story is typically reserved for the final chapter, and that chapter is only available to those who give this a try. Those who do will be in for a pleasant surprise!

If there's one thing I've learnt from this adventure it's that a recipe for cannelloni made using moistened lasagne sheets doesn't transfer directly to one that uses dry pasta tubes. Yes, one approach is to blanch the pasta tubes before filling them, but then you're back to the "another pan" issue that I was aiming to alleviate. What I have done here is to adjust the formula for the Béchamel. Specifically, whereas almost all recipes will call for ratios of, or close to, butter (g): flour (g): milk (ml) of 1:1:10, I have simply doubled the volume of milk such that the ratio becomes 1:1:20.


When it comes to the milk (which must be whole milk for the sauce to work), I always feel that it is best (though not essentially) infused with aromatics before it is incorporated into a white sauce. A hint of mace and clove is what I think makes all the difference, but I put below a selection of my favourite aromatics and suggest that any or all of them may or may not be employed. For the spinach base I would be very happy to substitute chard for the spinach, but I would be even more cautious to ensure the cooked leaves are as devoid of moisture as possible.


Stuffing the cannelloni tubes is inevitably a messy job. A piping bag is quite helpful (or a food bag with the corner snipped off) but doesn't completely solve the problem in my experience. Somehow the index finger always seems inevitably to get quite actively involved!


No cannelloni recipe doesn't require a bit of effort. But, for this one, perhaps think about it like this: there are three components to the dish - a base, a filling and a topping. Each of these components is quite straightforward to make. Moreover, the base and the filling can be made a day ahead. As can the milk infusion. Just bring them all back to room temperature before constructing the final dish. And do season each of the components in their own right, especially when it comes to the black pepper in the filling.


The recipe is written for two servings. For this, I've found the perfect-sized dish measures 5" x 7" (12cm x 18cm).




Crab and Leek Cannelloni



Ingredients (Serves 2)

6 dried cannelloni tubes

150g spinach leaves (weight after tough stalks removed)

1 tsp groundnut or other vegetable oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the filling:

A knob of butter

175g leek (mostly white part), quartered lengthways and thinly sliced

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

½ tbsp lemon thyme leaves

1 tbsp water, plus a little extra as required

100-150g brown crab meat

75g ricotta cheese

A few rasps of nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the Béchamel:

15g butter

15g flour

300ml whole milk, plus approximately another 100ml as required

Aromatics (optional, see below and recipe intro)

20g Parmesan, grated

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Aromatics to infuse the milk (optional) - any or all of:

1 small onion or shallot (sliced), 1 clove, 1 thyme sprig, 1 bay leaf, 1 mace blade, 8 black peppercorns



Method

  1. If choosing to infuse the milk, put all the aromatics in a saucepan with the 300ml milk, bring just to the boil then remove from the heat and leave to infuse for at least 20 mins. Strain the milk into a measuring jug and make the quantity back up to 300ml with the additional milk.

  2. For the spinach base, heat the groundnut or vegetable oil in a sauté pan and add the spinach. Stir it regularly, adding a splash of water if necessary, until it has wilted and all moisture has evaporated away (about 5 mins). Season to taste then remove the pan from the heat. When cool enough to handle, spread out between sheets of kitchen paper and press away some more of the residual moisture. Set aside.

  3. For the filling, melt the butter in a wide pan then add the sliced leeks, chopped garlic and thyme leaves. Stir for a minute or so then add the water and allow to sweat gently for 5-10 mins, adding a splash more water as necessary, until the leeks are soft but not coloured. Transfer to a bowl then fold in the brown crab meat, ricotta cheese and season with the nutmeg, salt and a generous grinding of black pepper. Set aside.

  4. To make the topping, melt the butter in a saucepan and, when hot, add the flour. Cook, stirring continuously for 1 min. Gradually beat in the (infused) milk making sure that all of each batch of the milk is incorporated before adding the next batch. Once all the milk has been incorporated allow the sauce to simmer for about 5-10 mins so that it thickens slightly. Off the heat stir in the grated Parmesan and season to taste.

  5. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Lay the spinach in the base of an ovenproof dish (see recipe intro for recommended dimensions). Pour a thin layer of the Béchamel over the spinach then arrange the filled cannelloni tubes on top. Pour the remaining Béchamel over and around the cannelloni making sure it seeps all the way down to the bottom and the pasta is completely covered. Bake in the oven for 40 mins (by which time a pointed knife should not feel any resistance when poked through the dish). For a browner top place under a hot grill for 2-4 mins. Allow to rest for 5-10 mins before serving.


References

  1. "Rick Stein's Food Heroes", Rick Stein (2002), pp. 34: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Food-Heroes-Stein/dp/0563534745


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