Mother's Savory Pancakes, with Swiss Chard, Ground Meat and Tomato Sauce & Bechamel
If you ask me what "comfort food" is, the things that I will mention will be the dishes my mother used to make when I was growing up and top of the list would be this wonderful baked pancake recipe here. So simple and yet so unbelievably delicious, this used to be a special treat that we might have on a birthday or for some other celebration... and trust me, it IS a dish to be celebrated!
This is not a dish made from those pasta tubes that we all know as cannelloni, which are traditionally made by wrapping pasta dough around canes (canne) to dry, to later be filled and baked, it is made of savory pancakes with a delicious filling of Swiss chard and ground meat. You just try getting that into a tube of pasta! Haha! Mother knows best after all- and this is much more of a treat!
Obviously, the first thing you are going to need to prepare, are plain, savory pancakes. I made these 3 small pancakes using 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons of flour, a little milk and the "secret" ingredient of just a little splash of sparkling water, which will make the batter fluffier. I stirred the ingredients together, let it sit for 4-5 minutes and then "fried" them in a non-stick pan that was just barely coated with butter- they only need to cook for a minute or two on each side and you don't want to drench them in oil or any other fat.
Once the pancakes are done and are cooling, rinse off the Swiss chard and cut it into bite-size chunks... for these 3 little pancakes I needed just one small head of greens- maybe 5-6 stalks. These can go into a saucepan with just enough water to cover them and a good pinch of salt and can boil, then simmer away gently for the duration of the time that you prepare the meat sauce- it is all about multi-tasking and everything will fall into place!
I think that for this dish, a simple but rich tomato sauce is fine, so I cut corners a little by reducing the ingredients to simply finely chopped onion and garlic, along with the ground meat (250g of 50:50 pork and beef in this case), and skipping the step of making a traditional "sofritto" first. So, into a dry pan went the ground meat, garlic and onion, as the meat has enough fat of its own. I let it sizzle away until the meat had completely changed color, from red to pale brown, then added 7-8 finely chopped cherry tomatoes as well as 2 tablespoons of tomato paste.
I let these fry with the meat and added 5-6 finely chopped leaves of basil, salt, pepper,a pinch of sugar and a hint of cayenne. after a couple of minutes, the ingredients began to look nicely brown but a little dry, so I deglazed the pan with just enough boiling water to cover the surface- I stirred it in and it soon thickened up because of the tomato paste. I let the sauce simmer for a further 5-6 minutes, in which time the chard was cooked and ready to be drained and set to one side... but my little saucepan went directly back onto the stove top, with about 1 coffee mug full of milk- which was plenty to make the Bechamel sauce for this small portion of 3 pancakes.
Whilst the milk was coming up to the boil, I stirred 1 teaspoon of flour into 1 teaspoon of butter with spoon, working it together into a smooth paste. As soon as the milk began to boil, I added the spoonful of flour and butter and stirred and stirred until it dissolved off the spoon and into the milk, I seasoned with salt, pepper and plenty of nutmeg and let it gently simmer away for 5-6 minutes, by which time it had become thick and creamy and ready to use!
Assembly time! The "cannelloni" are simply made by filling a little of the chard down the middle of one of the pancakes, spooning the meat and tomato sauce on top, adding a sprinkle of chopped cheese- Scamorza again in this case, because I just happened to have it at home, but Mozzarella or Parmesan are just fine too. A light drizzle of Bechamel comes next and then the pancakes can be folded shut.
I repeated the procedure and made 2 further pancakes and as I had a little extra ground meat for the filling, I spooned it into the baking dish around the outside... waste not- want not! A final sprinkle of cheese on top, another light drizzle of Bechamel, a sprinkle of pepper and nutmeg and then off it went into a hot oven, 300°F, for 10-15 minutes until the pancakes are golden brown on top and piping hot! A final minute under the broiler is also a good idea, just to get the edges of the pancakes a little crusty and the cheese a nice rich brown.
And as I said- this is a very simple dish- but the combination of chard, tomato sauce, ground meat, cheese and Bechamel is amazingly good!You're going to love it, your definition of "comfort food" will be altered for ever! Thanks mom! This is a classic dish of "feel good food" and one of my all-time favorites! Now more than ever!