The first time I saw canelones on a menu at a Soho tapas bar, I was deeply, and no doubt after a couple of sherries, loudly sceptical – I may even have likened it to ordering prawn cocktail at an Indian restaurant. One bite, however, convinced me otherwise: a speciality of Catalonia, where they're particularly popular on Boxing Day, canelones are generally stuffed with a rich mixture of pork and offal, and topped with bechamel, rather than the usual Italian tomato sauce.
This version, inspired by that revelatory one at Rambla, uses oxtail instead, slow cooked into sticky submission; perfect for a British winter, and ideal with a smoky Spanish red like this Montsant, which has just enough juicy black fruit to balance the meat. (Note that if you want to use some of the wine in place of the sherry, feel free.) It's a particularly useful dish for entertaining, as you can make the oxtail filling, and the béchamel in advance, then refrigerate, and simply assemble and bake just before eating – or just eat the oxtail stew with plain old mash, noodles or polenta if you prefer.
Felicity Cloake's Catalan Oxtail Canelones
For the stew
- 1.5kg oxtail, cut into chunks
- 30g flour
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 2 carrots, finely diced
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 small bunch of thyme
- 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
- 300ml fino or other dry sherry
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp flour
- 500ml milk
- Nutmeg, to grate
- 10 fresh lasagne sheets
- 2 handfuls of grated Manchego, Gruyere or Cheddar
Toss the oxtail in the flour with a little salt and pepper, then heat the oil in a large ovenproof casserole. Fry the oxtail in batches until well browned, then turn down the heat, scoop the meat out and set aside for now. (There should be plenty of fat left in the pan, but if not, add a drop more.) Heat the oven to 160C/140C fan/gas 3 (you can do this on the hob over a medium heat if you prefer, but I find it easier to maintain a constant temperature in the oven).
Fry the onions and carrots until golden and soft, but not browned, then stir in the garlic. Fry for another minute, then add the herbs and tomatoes. Stir the base of the pan to dislodge any stuck bits of meat, then add the sherry and bring to a simmer. Replace the meat, bring back to a simmer then cover and put in the oven for 3-4 hours until the meat is very tender, turning the oxtail over after 2 hours. Turn the oven up to 200C/180C fan/gas 4 if serving immediately.
Allow to cool slightly, then strip the meat from the bones and shred it into the sauce (you can spoon off excess fat at this point if you like, though will make the sauce extra delicious). While it's cooling, make the white sauce by melting the butter in a medium saucepan and stirring in the flour. Cook for a couple of minutes, then gradually whisk in the milk and heat, stirring, until it thickens. Season with salt and nutmeg to taste.
Put a thin layer of béchamel into the bottom of a large ovenproof dish. Cut the lasagne sheets in half lengthways, then drop a spoonful of ragu along one short edge and roll up into a cigar. Put, seam-side down, in the dish, and repeat the process until you've used up all the ragu.
Pour the white sauce over the top, then finish with the cheese. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown and bubbling and serve immediately.