Spinach and ricotta is easily one of the most brilliant yet unlikely liaisons there is in the world of food. I first tasted this dish at Fire and Ice, Calcutta- my favourite Italian restaurant in the city. It is now a must-order dish whenever I am there. Preparing this dish from scratch does require a fair bit of time and preparation. So, don’t make it when you are in a hurry. This casserole dish that can be made ahead and put under the broiler when the guests arrive.
Prep Time:3 hours
Cook time:30 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
Ingredients for crespelle:
– 2 large eggs
– 3/4 cup milk
– 1/2 cup water
– 1 cup flour
– 3 tablespoon melted butter
– 1/4 teaspoon salt
– sprig of thyme
Ingredients for tomato sauce:
– 5 ripe tomatoes
– 4 cloves of garlic
– 1 medium shallot/onion
– 1 sprig of thyme
– 2 tablespoon olive oil
– 1/2 tsp salt
– 1/2 tsp sugar
Ingredients for béchamel sauce:
– 21 g butter
– 21 g flour
– 1 cup milk
– 1/4 tsp nutmeg powder
– 1/2 tsp salt
– 1/2 white pepper
– 1/4 cup cream (optional)
Ingredients for the filling:
– 300 g ricotta (or chhana/paneer)
– 500 g fresh spinach
– 3 large eggs
– 2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan
– 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
– 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg powder
Additional ingredient for assembly:
– 250g fresh mozzarella
Make the filling, the tomato sauce, the béchamel sauce and the crespelle and assemble it in the end. Like Alton Brown says, ‘Organization will set you free’. Make sure you have all your ingredients for all the components measured and neatly arranged. Some basic breathing exercises are recommended. Now dive in. Follow the order of the instructions since I have found this sequence to be the least exasperating.
Put all the ingredients for the crespelle in your biggest blender jar and blend it for 7-10 seconds – no more. If the batter looks too thin don’t worry. It will thicken as the flour absorbs water. With the lid on, place the blender jar into your refrigerator. It must rest for at least an hour so that the air bubbles can escape and your crespelle is delicate and smooth.
Wash the spinach (discard the stems if you like) and the tomatoes well. Bring a pot of water to boil. Make cross-incisions at the base of the tomatoes. Blanch the tomatoes in the boiling water for a minute. Then fish them out with a pair of tongs or a wire-mesh ladle and put them into cold water. In the same boiling water put in the spinach, cover with a lid and leave it there for two minutes. Meanwhile, remove the tomatoes from the cold water bath. Fish the blanched spinach with a wire-mesh ladle. Put it in the cold-water bath. You will see that the dark green of the spinach brightens up into beautiful emerald green. After about a minute squeeze the water out of the spinach and set it aside.
Now that our vegetables are blanched, let us make the tomato sauce. Put a pan on medium heat and add the olive oil to it. While the oil warms up dice the garlic cloves and the onion finely. Put the chopped garlic and onion to the pan and sweat them on low flame. Make sure they don’t brown. Add the sprig of thyme (whole). Peel the skin from the blanched tomatoes and chop roughly. Once the onions are translucent add the chopped tomatoes along with the juices it may have given out to the pan. Add salt and sugar. Stir and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste for tanginess and salt. If the sauce is not tangy enough you can add half a teaspoon of red wine vinegar to it. When the tomatoes are cooked, (20-30 minutes in all) discard the thyme sprig. Put your immersion blender to the sauce and pulverise making sure to leave some chunky bits for texture. The tomato sauce is done.
For the filling chop the blanched and drained spinach finely. Put the eggs, salt, pepper, ricotta, parmesan and the spinach in a bowl and beat till it is creamy. The filling is ready.
We will make the crespelle now. Take the batter out of the fridge and check the consistency. It will have thickened a little. Adjust by adding a quarter cup milk or water until the batter is quite runny. Place a non stick pan on a low flame and lube it with a little butter. Using a ladle pour in the batter. Swirl it around to cover the base of the pan with a thin film of the batter. After a minute dislodge the edges with a spatula and flip it over. Cook it for another minute. If you see that flipping it is tearing the crespelle you can just cook one side for two minutes. Dislodge the crespelle from the pan and overturn the pan over the dish where you are stacking the cooked ones. The first crespelle may not turn out nice. Don’t be disheartened. Stack the crespelle one above the other. You will need 8-10 of them.
Next, we will roll the crespelle with the filling. Take a crespelle and lay it on a smooth surface. Divide the stuffing into eight equal portions using your measuring scale and a calculator. Now, place the filling at the centre like a log. Fold the two ends perpendicular to the filling slightly, so that the filling won’t come out when we roll it. Then you can roll it tightly like a spring roll. Do the same for all the crespelle or as many as you think can be placed side-by-side in your casserole dish.
We will make the sauce béchamel the last because béchamel can be hard to handle once it goes cold. Place the milk to heat on one burner. Get yourself a big wire whisk first. Now, on another burner heat a pan and add the butter. The butter must not burn. Let it bubble till the water in the butter evaporates. Next, add all the flour at once and start whisking vigorously (and constantly) till the flour comes off from the side of the pan in a lump. When it (the roux) develops a tan pour all of the milk in together and continue to whisk well to avoid forming any lump. Once all the roux has dissolved uniformly taste and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. When the sauce thickens take it off the heat and stir in the cream. The sauce béchamel is done.
Take your casserole dish. Ladle half of the tomato sauce at the bottom. Ladle one thin layer of the white sauce over it. Place the stuffed crespelle to cover the entire base in a single layer. Cut the mozzarella into small chunks and place them evenly. Ladle in the rest of the tomato sauce all over the crespelle. Finally, pour in all of the sauce béchamel to cover the dish.
The dish can be done upto this point and kept in the refrigerator with a thin cling-film on the top to prevent a skin from forming on the béchamel sauce.
Put the casserole under the broiler or if you don’t have a broiler (I don’t) preheat your oven to the highest temperature it will go (230 to 250 degree Celcius) and place the casserole on the top rack until it bubbles in cheesy-tomatoey delicousness and develops a partly burnt crust. Cut it into squares and serve deadly hot.