Fire Roasted Tomato and Harissa Rotolo
I always start my day off the same way: in bed browsing different food bloggers, other random people I follow via social media, and my absolute guilty pleasure – Candy Crush. While perusing, I came across beautiful photos of a dish called ‘rotolo’. I had never heard of it before, so it instantly caught my eye. It’s basically a cross between cannelloni and lasagna, but with the best of both dishes: crispy crunchy bits, fresh pasta sheets wrapped around filling, rich tomato sauce and loads of cheese all baked together in a cast iron pan. After drooling over it for a few moments I got up to hash out my own recipe of the Italian dish. Being me, I didn’t do any research into the dish at all and just decided to wing it and go purely based off of the photos for inspiration.
Lately I’ve been tending to lean towards North African/Arabic flavours and thought a fire roasted tomato harissa sauce would be ridonkulously good. If you have never heard of harissa – it’s a North African spice, consisting of red chili, garlic and cumin. It’s very mild in heat but packs a seriously distinct flavour punch. To go with the sauce, my filling for the cannelloni would be spinach, fresh ricotta and porcini mushrooms. I thought the smokiness from the fire roasted tomatoes with the addicting hit of heat from the harissa would be killer.
After gathering my thoughts I headed to my favourite Italian deli to pick up fresh pasta sheets (wish I made my own, but let’s not get crazy here), fresh ricotta, and a few cans of really good fire roasted tomatoes. I also stopped by the market to pick up a ton of spinach. That’s pretty much it; it’s a simple dish with basic ingredients.
To begin the dish I wanted to get my sauce started to allow maximum time for the sauce’s flavours to marry and be delightful. I started by sautéing sweet onion with minced garlic in olive oil for about 15 minutes to get a bit of caramelization, aka a deeper, richer flavour from the onions, before I added in harissa. As soon as the harissa hits the heat the smell is very pungent and distinct, like a Middle Eastern spice market full of chili, garlic, and cumin. I stirred this for a few minutes to allow the harissa’s flavours to be fully awakened. To this I added my cans of fire roasted tomatoes and brought it all up to a simmer. Then I popped a lid on and let it simmer away for 45+ minutes – enough time to get the filling finished.
For the filling I took a large bag of spinach and quickly blanched it in salted boiling water. As soon as it was wilted I took it out and ran it under cold water. Once cooled, I squeezed out the water from the spinach in small handfulss, leaving me with about four cups of spinach to work with. I ran my knife through the spinach, roughly chopping then placing into a mixing bowl. To that I added fresh ricotta cheese, minced garlic cloves, porcini mushrooms (I had leftovers form my French onion soup the other day), a good glug of sherry vinegar, an egg, and a good amount of salt and pepper.
(At this point, I checked on my sauce, giving it a good stir and a taste. It tasted great but could use a little tweak as I found it to be a little acidic. I added two-table spoons of brown sugar to balance the acidity.)
For the cannelloni rolls I started with a clean workspace, laying 3 pasta sheets down and cutting them in half, making 6 sheets. I spooned about 4 tbsp of filling on each sheet of pasta, one third of the way up. Then I formed the filling into logs evenly across each pasta sheet and brushed each sheet of pasta with water, then rolled them up like cigars. I set them on a parchment-lined tray while I repeated the process until all the filling was gone. I then placed the tray into the freezer to allow the rolls to firm up. (You can skip this step if you like, I found the rolls easier to slice after being in the freezer for 20+ minutes.) I sliced them with a serrated knife into thirds, about 2” wide, letting the teeth of the blade do the work so I wouldn’t squish out the filling.
At this point I have my cannelloni sliced, and the sauce is ready. I took a large 12” cast-iron pan and ladled about half the sauce into it. From there, I placed each roll of pasta upright, starting from the centre of the pan and working outward in a circular pattern to fill the pan. Once all the pasta was fitted in I gave the pan a good wiggle to really get it all in tight. At this point you have two options: 1. crumble ricotta and grated Parmesan over the top to give you a really crunchy top; and 2. ladle the rest of the tomato sauce over the top, then crumble ricotta and grate Parmesan on top to give more of a lasagna feel to the dish. I went with the second option.
I put the pan into a 350F oven with a foil lid for 20 minutes, then removed the cover and baked for another 25 minutes to crisp and brown the top. Then out of the oven it came to cool for a few minutes. (By allowing the rotolo to cool slightly you are able to make clean scoops from the dish, keeping the pasta intact. Otherwise you get really sloppy scoops and you look like you an amateur.)
(Serve it with lemon and really good olive oil tossed greens.)
Fire Roasted Tomato Harissa Rotolo
Yield 8 servings
1 large sweet onion – diced
8 garlic cloves – minced
1/3 cup Harissa
3, 14oz cans fire roasted tomatoes
2 tbs brown sugar
Salt and pepper
16 fresh pasta sheets
1 kg spinach – steamed and water squeezed – resulting in 4 cups
½ porcini mushroom
900g fresh ricotta cheese
100g shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
1. Peel and fine dice onion and garlic. Add to pot with 1/3 cup olive oil and sauté 15 minutes, until light caramelization occurs
2. Add 1/3 cup harissa to onions and sauté 2 minutes, until very pungent
3. Add fire roasted tomatoes, bring to a simmer, cover and simmer for 45 minutes.
4. Bring a large pot with 2” water to a boil. Add spinach and cook until spinach of completely wilted. Drain and rinse under cold water.
5. Squeeze water from spinach in small handfuls, rough chop and place into large mixing bowl.
6. Add 2/3 ricotta cheese, 1 egg, porcini mushroom, salt and pepper – mix well
7. Take pasta sheets and cut in half. Place 4 tbs of spinach mixture to the lower 1/3 of pasta sheet. Brush the remaining 2/3 sheets with water and roll the pasta up like a cigar. Repeat process until all the mixture has been rolled.
8. Set pasta rolls onto sheet tray and put in freezer for 20 minutes to firm up.
9. Once firm slice with serrated knife into thirds, making about 2” chunks
10. Pour ½ of tomato sauce into the bottom of large cast iron skillet.
11. Working from the center outward in a circular pattern, place the cut pasta upright filling the skillet.
12. Top with reaming sauce, or not, then last 1/3 of ricotta crumbled and shredded Parmesan cheese on top.
13. Set into a 350f over with a foil cover for 20 minutes then remove foil for another 25 minutes to brown and crisp the top.
14. Remove form oven and let stand 10 minutes before serving.