I’ve had a long-time passionate love for Gabriel García Márquez for years now, originally fueled by Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons, and most especially, Strange Pilgrims. This book, a compilation of twelve surreal and dreamlike tales, tells of a woman who sells her dreams – speaking of which – to the wealthy citizens of Vienna, two young brothers who endure the torture of an English governess one Greek summer, a family vacationing overnight in a haunted castle in Italy who wake to find themselves covered in blood, and a saintly man who carries the uncorrupted body of his dead daughter to and from the Vatican each day hoping to have her canonized, among others. Chief among my favorite of these stories, is Maria Dos Prazeres. Perhaps because I fear dying old and alone, perhaps because I, too, spent many years in the thrall of loving someone terrible for me, and perhaps because I also have a little dog that I cherish, could I relate so strongly to this story of an aging prostitute who fears no one will weep at her funeral and so trains her little dog, Noi, to weep over her grave.
Maria Dos Prazeres has a long-time client, an elderly count who comes to her house once a fortnight with a bottle of champagne and the paper, and sits to read while she prepares them both a meal, in a very odd parody of a marriage. They then retire to the bedroom. But the meal she cooks him sounded unusual and quite delicious.
“The visit had turned into a ritual. The punctual Count would arrive between seven and nine at night with a bottle of local champagne, wrapped in the afternoon paper to make it less noticeable, and a box of filled truffles. Maria dos Prazeres prepared cannelloni au gratin and a young chicken au jus – the favorite dishes from the halcyon days of fine old Catalonian families – and a bowl filled with fruits of the season.”
This recipe works on the premise that you already have some tomato sauce already made, and which I tend to always have on hand because it’s so calming to make. Anyway, if you don’t have some made, you can use a can of Italian-style diced tomatoes but I can’t promise they will taste as good. Anyway, onward!
This is the method that worked for me.
8-10 cannelloni or manicotti pasta shells
6 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless, and poached and shredded. (I usually do this day before.)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 bag of spinach
1 carton of raw mushrooms, sliced
2 cups of fontina cheese
3 tablespoons of flour
3 tablespoons of butter
1 1/2 cup of hot milk
Bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 cup of Italian-style breadcrumbs
2 cups of already-made tomato ragú sauce
In a large pot, bring about 8-10 cups of salted water to a boil. When boiling, cook the cannelloni shells for 10 minutes, checking for doneness. They should be al dente, chewy but with a hint of firmness. Drain the noodles, but don’t rinse, and leave to cool while you make your cannelloni filling. Save about a cup of the starchy pasta cooking water and set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add the diced shallots and garlic. Slice about half the mushrooms and add them in, so they saute as well. Cook for about 10-12 minutes, then add the spinach and wilt it down in the onion, garlic and mushrooms, so that all the flavors mingle. Remove from heat, add the cooked chicken and some of the saved pasta cooking water, stir together to mix well, and set aside to cool while you make the bechamel sauce.
In yet another pot (did I mention you’ll have a hella big amount of dishes to wash after this?), melt the butter over medium heat and when melted, slowly add in the flour. Stir vigorously with a whisk, so that the flour incorporates. Gradually pour in the hot milk, continuing and whisk until everything is amalgamated. Lower the heat to medium low, and stir stir stir, until the sauce thickens. This will take about 10 minutes, and don’t leave it because the milk could curdle or burn and that would just totally suck, wouldn’t it?
When nice and hot and thick, add in the chopped parsley and some salt, lower the heat again, and stir some more so the parsley flavor infuses everything. This is the point where you want to add in a good cupful of your tomato ragú sauce, which will make the bechamel a gorgeous, deep pinky-red color. Remove from the heat and allow to cool while you assemble the cannelloni shells.
In a buttered glass or metal pan, add a good spoonful or two of your premade tomato ragú sauce to the bottom. Grate the Havarti cheese into the chicken-spinach-mushroom mixture and mix together well, preferably with your very clean hands.
Stuff each cannelloni shell with some of the divine-smelling mixture. Once all the shells are filled, lay them in a row in the glass pan, add some chopped raw mushrooms, pour over the reddish-hued, luscious cream sauce, top with the Italian breadcrumbs, and bake for 35 minutes, or until the top is golden. The smell from the oven – what divine and sweet torture it is!
Remove from the oven and admire the golden, gooey beauty that this dish is. Then, of course, apply it to your face. Yum!