"Do what you're told and everything will be alright" Norman Jewison
When it comes to cooking it's a dilemma. Do you do what you're clearly told (well maybe sometimes unclearly) what to do via a recipe, or do you experiment, innovate ...? Steady does it, go with the flow or go wild? Last night in order to tick off my 'new' recipe for the week, I decided to be a little bit different and combine two recipes that I had found on the net. It ended in failure my friends. Mostly because I did not do as I was told.
My starting point was the need to do something at last with either these wonderful huge pasta shapes - I think they are called paccheri. I mean they're too big to just cook and serve with some kind of sauce aren't they. They are sort of crying out to be stuffed with something. Alternatively I had a half packet of dried lasagne which I also had to use. Then there was the ricotta in the fridge slowly going off - well not that slowly actually. I had two lots and the first lot had definitely gone and was thrown out into the green bin. At least it will end up as compost somewhere. And the last element in the equation was some spinach which would also be beginning to go off. Not to mention some silverbeet in the garden that needed harvesting.
I can't remember now which post I was 'researching' - maybe the 10 go-to meals - but almost at the same time I came across these two recipes: Ricotta stuffed conchiglioni in pumpkin sauce - from Ottolenghi and The best spinach lasagne recipe from J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats.
I thought they were both worth trying sometime, and when I was pondering on my 'new' recipe for the week I thought of them but I couldn't choose between them. So I decided to take a bit from one and a bit from the other and combine. I had no pumpkin and I was trying to use up things, so Ottolenghi's pumpkin sauce was obviously not on - but maybe tomato sauce instead? There was also no spinach in his mix, so in the end I really only took the concept of stuffing large pizza shapes with something - and the method. Which was to spread a layer of sauce, stuff your pasta and lay on top before topping with the rest of the sauce and a crumbly topping. There were anchovies heavily involved and chilli too which was another reason to just stick to technique here and an idea.
So much for Ottolenghi - although the actual dish is perhaps worth coming back to some time. What about J. Kenji López-Alt and his best ever spinach lasagne. I did ponder for a moment about just sticking completely to the recipe. After all I did have that lasagne, but the paccheri were older and well - different. The concept of the Serious Eats perfect lasagne is to use thin fresh lasagne - thin being the operative word - and layer with a spinach ricotta mixture and a béchamel sauce, topping with cheese and breadcrumbs. Well my lasagne, being the dried version was thicker than fresh pasta and besides it would need cooking first. So no I wouldn't make a lasagne, although maybe I could stuff his spinach mixture into the paccheri and layer with tomato sauce and the béchamel. In his recipe he did say:
"When I made a quick inquiry over on Twitter, there was an overwhelming reply that a good spinach lasagna should have no tomato sauce. That said, there was a strong vocal minority who actually liked the combination of tomato and spinach. I say feel free to add a couple cups of tomato sauce to be interspersed into the layers here and there."
I knew that David was one of that vocal minority who like tomato sauce with their spinach and cheese so I decided to follow that path.
Now J. Kenji López-Alt, writes long and detailed posts about his recipes. They are really interesting as they cover all the reasons why his recipe eventually ends up as it is. There are detailed pictures of the process to add to the clarity - some would say the confusion - of the whole thing. I did print out the recipe - in itself quite long - but not all the reasoning that went before. Even so it is relatively complicated and so I think I skimmed it. I also had to quarter the quantities because the recipe was for 8-10 people. Maybe you just can't make lasagne for less.
So what went wrong? Well the béchamel sauce which included mozzarella and parmesan - lots of it, ended up very thick and stretchy so that it was a bit difficult to pour over. He says to 'drizzle' it over the base. Mine definitely would not 'drizzle'.
Secondly - and here is really the major mistake that I made - I ignored a whole step in the process. Par cook your pasta first. Now for lasagne this would have been pretty easy. For the paccheri, it may have made it more difficult to stuff the individual pieces, but then again maybe not. It would still have been messy though. In the end I used the handle of a coffee spoon to stuff the spinach and cheese mixture in. If they had been partially cooked it might have been a bit tricky to keep the opening open. Who knows. But it was a real mistake to leave this step out because the pasta did not really soften enough. Even after 45 minutes of cooking. I also didn't listen when he said to let it rest for 10 minutes. Well Death in Paradise was coming on in five minutes! From the sublime - international cheffy food to the ridiculous - popcorn television, of which we are marginally ashamed.
The very al dente nature of the pasta might have been aggravated by there not being enough liquid in the mix. I truly think there was something wrong with the béchamel because it was much too thick. I added a bit of milk halfway through but there wasn't really enough space to add enough. I forgot to take a picture at the time - it looked quite appetising. These are the less than appetising leftovers, which I shall boost with more milk when I come to reheat it.
The lesson I have learnt is that yet again I failed to read the recipe properly, and also that I didn't go with my gut when I thought there was insufficient liquid to cook the pasta.
I now see that there are lots of recipes out there for stuffed paccheri. I should perhaps have gone for one of them even though they were from much lesser lights than Ottolenghi and J. Kenji López-Alt. Don't be misled into thinking that well-known people are the only ones who have the right answers is another lesson to learn. Even perhaps that you know best.
I suspect the reheated leftovers will be better than the first run.
I won't give up experimenting though, or making up my own recipes now and then. Well we all have to I think, unless we are absolute beginners. Otherwise we will not expand our minds, or even enjoy the process of cooking. And in spite of the fact that this was a failure I did enjoy the relatively complicated process, messy though it was at times. It's soothing, unless you have a deadline problem - which I did in the end. And yes, I learnt a couple of things. But mostly, I think to go with my gut. Indeed, not to do as I was told.