Mini Meatball Cannelloni with Spinach Mascarpone

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Every year, when we near the end of February, I feel at once excited and disappointed. On the one hand, my least favorite month is done and dusted. But on the other, there’s still March and, in some ways, March can be much worse. In March, you have the expectation that the weather will be on an upswing. But anyone who’s lived in Canada will tell you, March can be a full-on winter month. Heartbreaker, that’s what March is. And since this is the month we’re embarking on and it’s currently snowing like all-get-out, let’s find solace in carbs, shall we? This pan of Mini Meatball Cannelloni should do quite nicely.

Pouring wine over garlic and onions

Three Recipes for the Price of One

In today’s Mini Meatball Cannelloni, you will find all the building blocks of good comfort food. Red sauce? Check! Meatballs? Check! A multitude of gooey cheeses? Checkmate! It’s a classic in the making and it’s fairly easy to make. Sure, this honeycomb look does require some fiddly, arts-and-crafts-style construction. But it’s not “expert level” difficult. And if you screw up a cannelloni, just eat the evidence and move on, that’s what I do.

Crushing tomatoes into a skillet

The other benefit of this casserole o’ comfort is its multiple recipes. And what I mean by that is this Mini Meatball Cannelloni casserole contains 3 micro recipes. After cooking this dish, you will walk away having cooked your way through a solid red sauce, meatball, and savory mascarpone filling recipe. That’s three recipes for the price of one. And each and every one of them has multiple applications. Take the meatballs for instance: they don’t have to be mini, they could be jumbos served with spaghetti. They could sidestep pasta altogether and cozy up in a hoagie. That’s the magic of building your recipe repertoire – it’s your gateway to culinary creativity.

Red Sauce ready to simmer

Red Sauce – The Work Horse

Out of the trio of recipes that this Mini Meatball Cannelloni affords you, the most useful is the red sauce. Red sauce is one of those homemade staples you can never make too much of. You can scale it up or down, it freezes beautifully, and it’s the backbone of so many delicious things.

Mini meatball ingredients

Yes, red sauce is great on spaghetti but if you cook it down a little further, you have yourself a sensational pizza sauce. It’s also a great base for minestrone soup. And don’t feel bound to the Italian canon. You can use this red sauce, in a pinch, to flavor any tomato-based curry. How do I know? I know because I used some a few nights ago while I was making daal. It saved me a bunch of time and it tasted great. How can you argue with that?

Mini Meatballs and red sauce

Not as good as Nonna’s – Why Mess with a Classic?

But forgetting for a moment the educational value of this Mini Meatball Cannelloni, let’s talk about just how fantastic it is. I don’t know about you, but when I get blue I want spaghetti and meatballs followed by a slab of chocolate, no questions asked, no judgments passed. So, it only made sense to make something akin to spaghetti and meatballs during the last throes of winter.

Mascarpone Filling with spinach and mozzarella cheese

Only problem: spaghetti and meatballs have been done to death. I have nothing new to bring to this beloved dish. And it’s a meal that is so ubiquitous that most people have a way they prefer to make it and think all other versions are pure shit. Whenever I see spaghetti and meatballs on a menu that isn’t intended for kids, I feel afraid for the chef. Serving your version of a dish that everyone has had and has intimate memories tied to, is like ripping your shirt off in an auditorium and screaming “Please judge me!” at the top of your lungs. So yeah, spaghetti and meatballs – not going there.

Sprinkling mozzarella on the Mini Meatball Cannelloni

Mini Meatball Cannelloni – Not Too Ugly

One of the main reasons I arrived at cannelloni as my format of choice was looks…and the excuse to make a very cheesy filling. But mostly, I chose cannelloni because I wanted to make a casserole that looked like a crown.

Mini Meatball Cannelloni ready for the oven.

Now, before you judge my shallowness too harshly, please remember I do cook for the ‘gram – I sort of have to. So if you’re looking at this honeycomb situation and thinking, um no. You can totally just make cannelloni the way nature intended – lying down on a bed of sauce covered with yet more sauce. But for me, I knew I couldn’t do that again.

Mini Meatball Cannelloni

When I say “again”, I am referring to another totally tubular casserole I made a little while back: Red Lentil Enchiladas. I remember them being a nightmare to style. They just looked limp and lifeless in the pan. So, having taken my lumps with that recipe, I knew the classic cannelloni format wasn’t going to do it for me. So, I went with this crown design instead and I’m so glad I did, it brings so much more texture to the final dish and in spite of their vertical stance, the cheese filling really does stay put throughout the cooking and eating process.

Mini Meatball Cannelloni

And Speaking of Filling…

The mascarpone filling is really the easiest part of this whole affair. It consists of blanched spinach, garlic, a splash of orange juice, and shredded mozzarella cheese for that all-important cheese pull. All you do is stir it up and transfer it to a piping bag and fill away. The one thing I will say is don’t chill the filling for too long before piping – it gets pretty thick when cold, which your hands and forearms won’t thank you for.

Mini Meatball Cannelloni

So, that’s everything you need to know about these Mini Meatball Cannelloni. They’re simple to make and they make for an aesthetically pleasing casserole, which is saying something. We still have a whole lot of winter to barrel through, so keep your strength up with this carb-tastic dish.

Enjoy!

Mini Meatball Cannelloni with Spinach Mascarpone

These Mini Meatball Cannelloni are packed to gills with a creamy, spinach-flecked mascarpone filling punctuated with mini beef meatballs. Baked on a bed of cozy red sauce, this surprisingly gorgeous casserole delivers cozy comfort like no other dish.
Prep Time 45 mins
Cook Time 1 hr
Course Main Course
Cuisine American, Italian
Servings 4

Equipment

  • 1 Large, deep skillet
  • 1 7×11 Casserole dish
  • 1 Food Processor
  • 1 Large pot
  • 1 piping bag
  • 1 large round piping tip

Ingredients
  

Mini Meatballs

  • 454g (1lb) lean ground beef
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1 orange zest of
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • 1 tbsp fresh basil chiffonade
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

My Favorite Red Sauce

  • 1 yellow onion diced
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 1/2 tsp chili flakes
  • 1/2 cup dry white or rose wine
  • 1 can whole tomatoes
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 sprig fresh basil
  • 1 Parmesan rind optional

Mascarpone Spinach Filling

  • 140g (5oz) baby spinach
  • 475g (17oz) mascarpone cheese
  • 170g (6oz) mozzarella cheese shredded
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1 orange juice of
  • 1 tsp salt

To Assemble

  • 250g (9oz) dried cannelloni
  • 170g (6oz) mozzarella cheese shredded
  • 2 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • 1 tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley finely chopped

Instructions
 

For the Meatballs

  • Place all ingredients except the oil in a medium-sized bowl and combine with a clean hand until very well integrated.
    454g (1lb) lean ground beef, 1 clove garlic, 1 orange, 1 large egg, 2 tbsp breadcrumbs, 1 tbsp fresh basil, 1 tsp fennel seeds, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • Form the mixture into mini meatballs using a 1/2 teaspoon measure as a guide.
  • Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat until simmering. Working in batches, fry all the meatballs until well browned. Set aside.
    2 tbsp olive oil

For the Red Sauce

  • Return the skillet to the stove and place it over high heat. Once the fat from the meatballs is bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onions. Add a pinch of salt and sweat the onions for 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the crushed red pepper flakes and saute for 30 seconds.
    1 yellow onion, 3 cloves garlic, 1/2 tsp chili flakes
  • Deglaze the pan with the wine and simmer until reduced by half. Open the tomatoes and crush them, by hand, into the skillet. Pour any remaining juices left in the can into the skillet as well. Stir in the sugar, dried oregano, and dried basil and bring the mixture up to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
    1/2 cup dry white or rose wine, 1 can whole tomatoes, 1 tsp granulated sugar, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1 tsp dried basil
  • Add the bay leaves, the basil sprig and the parm rind, if using, to the skillet. Let simmer for 20 minutes or until jam-like. Remove and discard the aromatics and transfer to a food processor. Blitz until smooth. Set sauce aside until ready to assemble.
    2 bay leaves, 1 sprig fresh basil, 1 Parmesan rind

For the Mascarpone Filling

  • Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Stir in the spinach in batches, adding more only after the previous addition wilts. Drain the spinach and wrap in cheesecloth. Squeeze to remove excess moisture. Coarsely chop the spinach and place in a large bowl.
    140g (5oz) baby spinach
  • Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl and stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a large piping bag and set aside until ready to use.
    475g (17oz) mascarpone cheese, 170g (6oz) mozzarella cheese, 1 clove garlic, 1 orange, 1 tsp salt

To Assemble

  • Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  • Bring a large pot of water up to a boil. Add the cannelloni and stir to keep the noodles from sticking together. Cook until the pasta is just underdone. Drain and rinse the cannelloni in cold water. Set aside.
    250g (9oz) dried cannelloni
  • Pour a cup and a quarter of the red sauce into a 7×11 baking dish. Spread the sauce in an even layer.
  • Cut the cannelloni in half and, working a half at a time, stand the cannelloni half up in the red sauce. Fill the cannelloni with the mascarpone filling and meatballs until it's able to more or less stand on it's own. Repeat with the remaining cannelloni.
  • Cover the cannelloni with shredded mozzarella cheese and breadcrumbs and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese is golden and bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before sprinkling with fresh parsley. Serve with your favorite wine.
    170g (6oz) mozzarella cheese, 2 tbsp breadcrumbs, 1 tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley
Keyword cannelloni, mascarpone, meatballs, Pasta, pasta al forno, spinach, tomato sauce

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