“An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, thinks he’s French, and would secretly like to be British.” – Author unknown
It’s impossible to deny the influence that Italian immigrants have had on Argentine culture. Arriving by the millions at the end of the 19th century and well into the beginning of the 20th century, Italians left their homeland in droves with the hopes of finding greater economic prosperity in Argentina. According to figures from the organization FEDITALIA , it’s estimated that some 20 million Argentines, a little over 50% of Argentina’s entire population, are either full or partial descendants of Italians.
Argentine cuisine includes dishes imported directly from Italy, as well as others that originated in Argentina, albeit with a strong Italian influence. The dish I’m featuring in this post, canelones (or cannelloni in Italian), consists of a tender crepe stuffed with spinach and ricotta cheese and finished off with both a tomato sauce and a white sauce. In contrast to Italian-American cuisine, cannelloni in Argentina are normally made with panqueques (crepes) rather than tubes of pasta.
I’m willing to admit that this dish won’t be your first choice for a quick weeknight supper. Preparing canelones qualifies as rather labor intensive, so don’t expect to throw this meal together in 30 minutes after a long day at work. With that said, many of the steps can be done in advance, and this recipe is worth the effort for a Sunday meal with the family or a special gathering.
Canelones de Espinaca y Ricota (Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni)
Yields 8 canelones
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup cold whole milk
2/3 cup cold water
3 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons butter, melted [plus 1 tablespoon to grease the pan]
1 lb. fresh spinach [yields 1 cup cooked spinach]
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 lb. ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
Tomato Sauce [substitute jarred tomato sauce or your own recipe if desired]:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
16 oz. can crushed tomatoes
½ cup water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Bouquet garni (bundle of fresh herbs): thyme, basil, parsley, bay leaf
Pinch of sugar, if necessary
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
White pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Preparing the panqueques:
Combine the first five ingredients and beat the mixture until smooth using a blender or whisk. Add the melted butter and blend just until smooth. Don’t overbeat the batter, as the panqueques will turn out rubbery. Strain the batter if it looks lumpy. Refrigerate the batter, covered, for a minimum of 1 hour.
Heat an 8-inch non-stick frying pan [or crepe pan, if you happen to have one] over medium heat. Lightly brush the pan with melted butter.
Pour ¼ cup of batter into the center of the pan, and then tilt the pan to evenly cover the bottom. Cook about 1 minute, or until lightly browned and lacy on the bottom. Flip the panqueque with a spatula, and cook briefly on the other side [it will look speckled]. Remove the panqueque to a wire rack or plate to cool as you continue making the rest, stacking successive panqueques one on top of the other. Don’t get discouraged if the first panqueque turns out badly—this is common.
This recipe yields 10 panqueques. Once cooled, the panqueques can be stored in the refrigerator in a resealable plastic storage bag for several days if you’re not ready to assemble the canelones.
Preparing the Filling:
Place the spinach in a large pot over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes or until wilted. Drain well. Set aside for 5 minutes to cool. Use your hands to squeeze any excess moisture from the spinach. Chop the spinach and place in a large bowl.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until the onion softens. Transfer to the bowl with the spinach. Add the walnuts, ricotta and parmesan cheeses to the bowl and stir until well combined. Adjust the seasoning as necessary.
Preparing the Tomato Sauce:
In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook until the onion turns soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the crushed tomatoes, water and bundle of herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Adjust seasoning, adding a pinch of sugar if the sauce is too acidic. Remove the herbs.
Preparing the White Sauce:
In a small, heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Stir the flour into the melted butter. Add the salt. Cook the mixture over low heat, stirring often, for 4 to 5 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly. Continue cooking until you achieve a smooth, thick sauce. Strain the sauce to eliminate any lumps. Season with white pepper and nutmeg to taste.
Assembly of the canelones
Place a panqueque on a clean work surface. Put a couple of large tablespoons of the spinach filling about a quarter of the way in on one side of the panqueque. Roll up firmly to enclose the filling, and place the panqueque seam-side down in a large ovenproof baking dish, coated with a layer of tomato sauce on the bottom. Repeat with the remaining panqueques and spinach filling, placing the crepes side by side in the baking dish. Spread tomato sauce all over the panqueques and then lightly pour some of the white sauce over them.
Bake in a preheated 400ºF oven for about 15 minutes or until heated through. Allow the canelones to stand for 5 minutes, and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese before serving.