Sausage, ricotta, and mozzarella–a baked cannelloni casserole

No one in my household was Italian, no one cooked Italian food, (neither my mother, who never cooked, or our live-in maid), no Italian heritage oozes through my genes. However, everyone loved Italian food. To this day, from childhood memories and taste buds which take me back, I remember that my two younger siblings and I have always loved saucy, cheesy-meaty and gooey dishes, from lasagna to Cannelloni, to Fettuccine Alfredo and veal parmigiana. These traditional dishes ring out as monikers for Italian fare, touching my heart and palate deeply. How did this all come about?

After my father died, from my preteen years onward, and once my mother remarried Dr. Finkelstein, and for about eight years as a family, we dined out twice a week when our maid had her days off. Thursday evening’s we always ate at a burger joint, where my mother chatted with all the neighbors nearby. Friday night was to a high-end Italian restaurant, called The Starr, in Newark, New Jersey. Here was when and how I got hooked on Italian food.

I remember we first ordered round slabs of pizzas which arrived pipping hot, grease galore, red sauce, circles of curled pepperoni, inch-long anchovies, dotted with oregano and a red spice. Two large pies, probably eighteen inches, sat smack at eye level as six of us began to dig in. Yum! Than, after we devoured the pizza, we ordered our main dish. To this day I’m still amazed that we ate the pizzas, plus our main dish! What appetites we had. My stalwart dish was veal parmigiana. To this day,I’m still on the search for a similar dish, floating in grease, like I ate as a child, and never seem to quite get it exactly right, which is often the case upon reflection.

Because of those early memories and circumstances, I’ve spent nearly fifty years cooking Italian foods, plus other dishes, sometimes more, sometimes less. And as my cooking frenzy has bubbled up, rising to new height, I try different dishes, like the following, which I loved creating and experimenting with. I love Italian foods so much that I’ll be visiting Tuscany, Italy for ten days in the fall on a unique cooking adventure with a chef.

I’d love to hear about your cooking adventures, Italian or otherwise? What favorite Italian dishes do you like to make or eat? Give me some of your tips, or different cooking methods? Do you like spice on your foods, or not? share with me your other passions. Mine are jewelry making, gardening, baking, painting and sewing.

This dish is unique and unusually good as I weaved in different ideas and tricks to make it luscious. According to a guest I cooked this dish for, it’s as good as a steak dinner! Other friends have raved about it too. I’ll certainly add it to my next cookbook.

After you cook it, please let me know how you enjoyed it, or what tweaks you did with the ingredients to make it your own!

Bechamel sauce

6 Tbsp. butter

3 1/2 Tbsp. flour

3 1/4 cups milk -whole or 2 percent – room temperature, divided

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/8 tsp. nutmeg, if fresh, use a grater 2-3 times

pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

Ingredients

3 Tbsp. olive oil

12 oz. pasta, approximately 30 jumbo shells, cooked three quarters of the way through

1/2 lb. fresh whole-milk ricotta

1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella in small balls, or whole or part skim milk mozzarella

3 1/4 cup store-bought marinara or pizza sauce

2 large bunches fresh broccoli, approximately 2 1/2 cups broccoli florets, coarsely chopped, or one 10 oz. fresh spinach, trimmed or not, your choice

3/4 lb. sweet Italian sausage,casings removed

1/4 lb. ground beef, 80-85%

4 garlic cloves, sliced thin

5 small shallots sliced thin, or 6 scallions, chopped, using white and green parts

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. thyme

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper, or several grinds of peppercorns

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Process for the Bechamel

1 Melt butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir until smooth and light golden brown, about 3-5 minutes. Whisk in 3 cups of milk gradually, one cup at a time, as you increase the heat to medium high. Whisk constantly, keep at a simmer and cook about 5-8 minutes until the sauce is thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese, cayenne pepper, nutmeg and salt. If the sauce seems a bit too thick, stir in the one quarter cup of milk. Cover and keep the sauce warm until ready to use. (The sauce can be made 2 days ahead of time, Let it cool, then cover and put in the refrigerator. Reheat on low whisking constantly, add a splash or two of milk if needed to loosen.)

Process for the Bechamel sauce and the other ingredients

1 In a large cast iron or fry pan, heat the olive oil to medium-high,. Add the shallots or scallions and cook 3-5 minutes as they wilt and get tender, but not golden brown. Add the broccoli, cook and stir 5-7 minutes while the vegetable turns deep green and turns slightly brown. If using spinach, add it and cook it, covered, for about 3-5 minutes as it wilts and shrivels. Add the meat. Cook and stir on medium heat for 5-7 minutes, breaking up the sausage and hamburger very well as all pink color disappears. Add the salt, pepper, oregano and thyme. Turn the heat down, add the garlic and cook 1-2 minutes making sure the garlic does not burn. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2 Add the 3 cups of tomato sauce, stirring to incorporate. If unusually thick, add part or all of the one quarter remaining sauce.

3 If the bechamel sauce has thickened too much, add a tablespoon of water. In a 13 x 9 inch pan, spread half of the bechamel sauce, spreading it out even in the pan. Place about 5 rows of six shells in the pan. In each shell, add approximately 2 teaspoons of the meat sauce. (Do not over-stuff the shells, since you’ll want room for the cheeses.)

4 In each shell, dollop 1 -2 teaspoons of ricotta cheese. Next, cut the mozzarella pieces in half, or use 1-2 teaspoon of the mozzarella. Press the cheese on top of the ricotta, pushing down a bit if need be to make room for all the cheeses. The shells will be very full! Top the stuffed shells with the rest of the bechamel sauce, spreading evenly. You should have some meat sauce remaining. Cover the bechamel with this, making sure to completely cover the pasta so none of the tips of the shells are exposed, otherwise when they cook they turn a bit dry. Gently smooth the dish with a spatula. If you have additional ricotta or mozzarella cheeses remaining, you can poke pieces randomly on top. Top the dish with the final Parmesan cheese. Bake 40-45 minutes, until bubbly and lightly brown here and there. Cool in the pan for 5-10 minutes. Serve warm or hot.



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