For my Harlot’s Artists project I’ve been asking some of my favourite performers fun questions about food and delving into their culinary memory banks. It got me thinking about my own childhood and the things that stuck with me – like the beef and broccoli my mom used to make in our big, beautiful red wok.

Although she doesn’t make it any more that glorious taste of salty soy sauced beef lingers in my mind. Absolutely nothing to this day beats the egg rolls and deep fried shrimp from my church of Chinese food – Paul Wong’s. Or the juicy Ping Gai chicken with an impossible to replicate lime and coriander sauce at Queen Mother Cafe. Then there’s those super gooey and tangy chicken wings from the Killington Vermont ski chalet, sitting in our long johns and licking our fingers watching the last skiiers come in off the mountain. Or click here for my life changing Newfoundland seaside mussels experience.

Then there is quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever devoured, or at least the one that stuck with me the most vividly. It was on one of our Florida trips to visit our south of the border family and my uncle Rick took us to a restaurant on the water in Ft. Lauderdale. Although I couldn’t tell you how old I was, who was there or what the place was called, I certainly recall that meal. The room was dark wood and opened out onto a marina, there were fishing nets and nautical touches galore and I had one supremely sumptuous Seafood Cannelloni.

That now heroic cannelloni was stuffed to the gills (sorry, I had to) with lobster and scallops and shrimp and flaky white fish. The red sauce was deep and tangy and there was just enough cheese to drape around the shells and give some gooey resistance. The insides were plump with fresh seafood and pillowy ricotta while remaining light and moist. I’ve had seafood cannelloni since and tried making it myself, but nothing has come close to that dinner. Maybe I’ve glorified that night in my mind, or maybe nothing can match that fresh from the salty ocean taste, but I’ve stopped trying and settled into the memory of its lasting perfection.

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My mom occasionally made cannelloni with spinach and cheese, it was great too, but she gave in fed up with stuffing those precarious tubes, cracking half of them into a frustrating mess. Years later I’ve returned to the oven to take a pass at it myself, this time armed with a secret weapon: fresh lasagne sheets. If you don’t make pasta yourself (confession: Johnny’s mom gave us a pasta roller a few years back that I haven’t gotten around to using… but I will), then you should definitely pick some up. I love to use fresh linguine with Jamie Oliver’s Chicken Legs and Tomatoes and it cooks up in just a few minutes. If you haven’t gone fresh you should at least try it, the difference is astronomical.

I know there will be more delicious and memorable meals in my future – I’m going to New Orleans in February so it’s almost guaranteed – but I will forever dip into the ol’ memory archive to relive and re-feast on those perfect culinary moments. It’s no coincidence they are always made more special by the company at the table. So, what are some of your most cherished food memories?

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MUSHROOM AND RED PEPPER CANNELLONI WITH FRESH PASTA

serves 4

We had a big family to do a few weeks back when the Florida family came to visit. We decided to host it in our quaint (read: tiny) abode and had to get creative with table arranging. I don’t get to see my cousin, Natasha, often and had only a few short days to catch up. To avoid spending all day in the kitchen I opted for some make ahead menu ideas and knew cannelloni would be the star. Cannelloni is a little more elegant than its cousin lasagne, plus it’s one vegetarian dinner that is sure to satiate any sized appetite.

Fresh lasagne sheets are oven ready, but because we are rolling them instead of laying them flat I opt to parboil them for 20 seconds or so to make them more supple and avoid cracking. I’m a fan of the purist spinach and ricotta filling, but I try to cram in some extra veggies anywhere I can. Here it’s mushrooms and red pepper, but fennel is great in pasta dishes and I bet broccoli, peas or kale would work too. I always make extra sauce for serving – ‘cuz you can never have too much sauce!

 

Filling:

1 tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 red pepper, diced

2 cups sliced mushroom

1/2 tsp chili flakes

1 tsp kosher salt

fresh ground black pepper

3 cups packed fresh spinach

1 cup packed fresh basil, leaves sliced and stems finely chopped

1 egg, beaten

454g ricotta cheese

1 1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1/2 tsp nutmeg

Sauce:

796 ml can crushed tomatoes

2 cups passata

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp sugar

fresh ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp crushed chili flakes

To assemble:

360 gram  package of fresh lasagne sheets, white or whole wheat

1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella cheese

lots of fresh parmesan to serve

 

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Preheat your oven to 350F

For the filling: Add the olive oil to a large pan on medium/high heat. Then add onion, garlic, red pepper, mushroom, basil stems, salt, chili and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes or until the veg starts to soften. Toss in your spinach and continue until it wilts down, about another 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and add the basil. Let cool for at least 10 minutes.

Combine the rest of the filling ingredients in a bowl. Once the veg mixture has cooled, drain any excess liquid and stir in with the cheeses. This filling can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated.

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For the sauce: Add all the ingredients to a large pot, swirling the tomato can with about 1/2 cup water. Simmer 15-20 minutes. Check the seasoning and remove the bay leaf.

For assembly: Ladle enough tomato sauce to cover the bottom of 1 large, high sided baking dish or 2 smaller ones. Fill a pan with cold water and salt bringing it to a boil. Cut your pasta sheets in half width-wise and place a clean, dry tea towel next to the pan. Have your filling and baking dish within reach as well as a clean work surface or cutting board.

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Working with 2 sheets at a time, place them into the boiling water for 20-30 seconds, just long enough to soften then so they don’t split when you roll them. Remove them gently with tongs or a large spider. Place them onto the towel for a moment to dry slightly.

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To fill: Spread 1 tsp of tomato sauce along the short edge of the sheet. Scoop about 1/4 cup of the filling in a sausage like shape on top stretching right to the edges. Roll tightly and place seam-side down in your baking dish. Repeat until all the sheets are rolled. Ladle more sauce over top, reserving some to serve. Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese over your cannelloni and cover with foil.

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Bake in the oven for 40 minutes – or if using 2 dishes place in the upper and lower parts of the oven and rotate halfway through. Remove the foil for the last 5- 10 minutes or until the cheese begins to bubble and turn golden.

To serve: Spoon some reserved sauce on a plate and top with 2-3 cannelloni. Grate some fresh parmesan on top and serve with a simple salad.

If making ahead: Assemble the cannelloni, but do not bake. Cover and refrigerate up to a day ahead. Let come to room temperature – about 10 to 15 minutes before baking.

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