Teresa Parker blogs about restaurants, recipes, and the reasons why she's in love with Spain's food and culture.
Canalons are one of those rich comfort foods people tend get competitive about. Barcelonins spend a good part of the day after Christmas (when canalons are a tradition) discussing just what exactly makes their mothers' nutmeg-scented ground pork and veal stuffed into pasta and browned under a layer of bechamel so "light." I know this sounds Italian, but the cooks of Barcelona swear it is theirs.
If pressed, they might remind you that northern Italy was part of the late, great medieval Catalan empire. Colman Andrews says canalons came to Catalonia with a wave of Italian immigrants in the 19th century. Homey old-fashioned dishes like this are in danger of going out of style in a Barcelona obsessed with culinary innovation. But these really are a tradition worth reviving.
I'm happy to report that at Restaurant Gaig about all they've done to modernize their canalons is to serve just a dainty pair. You can assemble these early in the day, chill, and bake later. I like to add a little pork belly to Colman Andrews's recipe in Catalan Cuisine (Headline Book Publishing, 1988, reprinted by Harvard Common Press, 1999), like this:
Serves 8 as a first course
1 small sweet onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 soft-ripe tomatoes, seeded and grated
Olive oil – about 3 Tbsp
1/2 lb chicken thigh meat, ground
1/2 lb veal, ground
1/2 lb pork, ground
1/4 lb unsmoked bacon or pork belly
3 chicken livers, minced
1/4 C coarse breadcrumbs
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp minced thyme leaves
s&p to taste
3 sheets fresh pasta (12x16), cut to make 24 squares (6x4)
2 C béchamel (melt 4 oz butter, add 4 Tbsp flour, blend in 2 C scalded milk, s&p)
1/2 C grated Parmesan cheese
Butter for casserole dish
Sauté onion, garlic, and tomato pulp in olive oil in a heavy skillet. Let the vegetables break down and take on color very slowly – this is a sofregit, the basis of many classic Catalan sauces.
While the vegetables caramelize ever so slowly, and all you have to do is stir them now and then, busy yourself make a small batch of béchamel sauce and set aside.
Butter a 9x12 casserole and set aside.
Cut fresh pasta into 4x6 inch squares, boil in salted water until just tender, drain, and spread out on a dry cotton kitchen towel.
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Add the chopped meats, belly, and livers to the sofregit, season with nutmeg and thyme, salt and pepper, and continue cooking about 5 more minutes, then, off the heat, mix in the breadcrumbs and the egg.
Correct seasonings and make canalons, placing about 2 Tbsp filling along the short end of each pasta rectangle for each roll. Put rolls seam side down into the buttered casserole.
Pour on the béchamel, sprinkle with cheese, and bake about 20 minutes, until bubbly and golden.