The secret to my deliciously healthy Cannelloni Recipe is the slow and low cooking process required to create the richly flavored meat and tomato sauce that is used for fill the cannelloni tubes. In Italy, the Italians refer to this sauce as Ragu. It’s thicker than Bolognase and is made using tomatos, beef – usually pork or beef, herbs and red wine.
The end result is a real crowd-pleaser of a dish and something you’ll be proud and glad you invested the time and effort in making. Once you’ve tasted it I’m certain you will agree that a little extra time in the preparation and cooking and the slightly fiddly stuffing of cannelloni pasta tubes is definitely worthwhile.
Healthy Cannelloni Recipe Ingredients
Giving the Ragu time for the flavours to meld and the sauce to thicken provides a delicious richness and depth of flavour. Cooking it this way means I’m always reluctant to go back to a quick 30-minute stove-top version that often is watery and lacking in flavour. The low and slow cooking process ensures that the meat is tender, the vegetables sweet and the sauce has a real depth of flavour – just like Mama used to make!
I find the thickness of the cannelloni pasta can vary in size and thickness greatly so try to buy the best quality cannelloni you can find. Dense pasta makes for a stodgy finish and as the dish is quite rich anyway, you way to avoid this. It’s a good idea to pre-soak the cannelloni in recently boiled and then slightly cooled water for a minute or so.
Try to keep the pasta tubes separate as they have a tendency to stick together. They need to have a slight give when you remove them from the water but not too soggy so they disintegrate. Pat them dry on a clean tea towel or on kitchen paper to remove any excess water before you fill them with the Ragu.
The topping for the cannelloni has to be a luscious béchamel sauce. My version includes flour and butter but see my tips below for a vegan and gluten-free béchamel sauce.
Tips on How To Make Cannelloni From Scratch
As I said in my introduction, the time and effort you put into making the Ragu from scratch really does make all the difference to my finished Healthy Cannelloni recipe.
Some shop-bought Ragu can be too watery and will result in the sauce leaking out of the pasta tubes causing them to collapse during the cooking process. Even if you do find a Ragu of the right consistency, they can all too often be laden with additional preservatives, salt and sugar too. I prefer to know the provenance of what I’m eating and so where possible, I will always make my own.
For this recipe it’s a good idea to make the Ragu for the cannelloni in advance. Not only does this mean you will be able to get ahead, it also allows the flavors to meld and develop and provides the finished dish with richness and added depth of flavor.
To add even more flavor I add 125ml of red wine or apple juice once I have browned the meat. Make sure the hob heat is up high to allow the liquid to bubble for 3 minutes or so while the alcohol from the wine burns off. You’ll see that the liquid will reduce slightly.
I like to finish my Ragu in the oven. I find this gives the meat a softer texture, and totally transforms the dish by intensifying the flavor. For me this is an essential part of the cooking process. It really helps to thicken the tomato sauce and avoid puddles of watery Ragu and soggy pasta tubes, making it the best way to achieve an authentic tasting cannelloni.
To prepare the cannelloni pasta tubes you’ll need to soak them in just boiled water before filling them. The water needs to be hot but have cooled enough so you don’t burn your fingers while you are handling the pasta. Place the cannelloni in the water for 30 seconds to a minute. Give them just enough time to soften very slightly.
You may need to do this in batches to prevent the bowl being overcrowded and the pasta tubes sticking together. Once softened, place on a clean tea towel or kitchen paper and pat dry to absorb any excess water.
Once the Ragu is made and the pasta prepared, you’ll need to make your béchamel sauce just before assembling the whole dish. Find an ovenproof dish large enough to fit your cannelloni tubes (20cm x 25cm if you have it) in either a single row or two rows when placed side by side.
Start by spooning a thin layer of Ragu on the bottom of the dish. This helps to stop the pasta tubes sticking to the bottom of the dish. Begin to fill the tubes with the Ragu, lining up the pasta tubes in the dish as you go.
Once you’ve assembled the filled cannelloni in the dish, pour the béchamel sauce over the top before placing in a pre heated oven at 180c for 40 minutes.
Enjoy this Healthy Cannelloni Recipe with a simple green salad.
Cannelloni Recipe Variations
Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni
A healthy cannelloni recipe can be meat-free too. How about a delicious spinach and ricotta cannelloni using a meat-free tomato sauce instead? To do this follow the steps for my Ragu sauce but simply leave out the step for browning the meat.
There is also no need to cook the sauce in the oven. Instead, once you’ve added all the ingredients and brought the sauce up to the boil, you can simply reduce the heat and allow it to simmer away for about 30 minutes or until the sauce has reduced slightly and thickened.
To make a healthy cannelloni recipe using spinach and ricotta as the filling for the pasta, simply sauté 500g washed spinach in a pan with a little olive oil and a clove of garlic. Once wilted, remove from the heat and stir in 350g ricotta cheese and 50g parmesan cheese.
Fill the prepared cannelloni pasta with the spinach and ricotta mixture, (see my tips on how to soften the pasta), lay in a 20cm x 20cm ovenproof dish, then spoon over the tomato sauce followed by the béchamel sauce.
To add more flavor, you could add 50g parmesan to the béchamel sauce once it has been cooked and before you layer it over the pasta and tomato sauce. Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes on 180c.
Healthy Cannelloni Recipe
For the Ragu Sauce
- 500 g lean beef mince
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic (finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks trimmed and finely diced
- 2 medium carrots finely diced
- 2 tsp dried herbs oregano or thyme are good
- 1 bay leaf
- 125 ml red wine or apple juice optional
- 1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tsp sugar
- Salt and freshly milled black pepper
- 500 ml good quality beef stock
- 150 g Cannelloni pasta
For the Béchamel sauce
- ½ pt semi skimmed milk
- 2 tbsp plain flour
- 25 g butter
- Salt and freshly milled black pepper
- In a large lidded heatproof cooking pot add 1tbsp olive oil and then add the onions. Fry on a low heat for 5 minutes until soft and translucent.
- Add the garlic to the pot and cook gently for a further 2 minutes stirring often. Avoid burning the onions and garlic as they will give the dish an acrid taste.
- Add the celery and carrots. Give everything a good stir to combine all the ingredients together. Cook for 2 minutes more.
- Push the vegetables to one side of the pot and cook the mince on a medium heat. The mince needs to become slightly browned. You may need to do this in batches so as not to overcrowd the pot.
- Once the meat is browned add the herbs, bay leaf, tomato puree, sugar, salt and pepper. Give everything a good stir to combine.
- If you want to add more flavour you can add the optional 125ml of red wine or apple juice at this point. Increase the heat and allow the liquid to bubble for 3 minutes while the alcohol from the wine burns off causing the liquid to reduce slightly.
- Now add the tinned tomatoes and beef stock. Allow the mixture to come to the boil.
- Once it reaches a boil reduce the heat to medium, pop on a lid and let the whole thing simmer way for 10 minutes. Transfer the lidded pot to an oven that has been heated to 170c fan and cook for 1.5 hours.
- While the Ragu is cooking get on with the cannelloni pasta and béchamel sauce.
- Turn your oven on to 180c
- Allow a boiled kettle of water to cool for 10 or so minutes. Pour the boiled water into a large bowl about one third of the way up.
- Place the cannelloni in the water for 30 seconds to a minute. Give them just enough time to soften very slightly. You may need to do this in batches to prevent the bowl being overcrowded and the pasta tubes sticking together. Once softened, place on a clean tea towel or kitchen paper and pat dry to absorb any excess water.
- Next make the béchamel sauce. Heat the milk until it is nearly at boiling point. You can do this in the microwave in a microwavable jug or on the stove top in a suitably sized saucepan on a low heat.
- While the milk is heating through put the butter into a clean saucepan. On a low heat allow it to melt. Once melted, add the flour and whisk vigorously until combined. Allow the butter and flour mixture to cook gently for a minute. You may see a few bubbles appear and that’s totally fine but don’t let the mixture burn in the pan. Keep stirring.
- Gradually add the milk to the butter and flour mixture. Add the milk little by little to prevent any lumps. It should first become a paste and will then thicken as you gradually add more milk.
- When you’ve added all of the milk you can increase the heat to medium to allow it to come up to the boil. Make sure you stir continuously to prevent any burning on the bottom of the pan or any lumps forming.
- Once it is boiling and has thickened you can turn the heat back down and allow it to bubble away gently for a minute or so. You should now have a creamy, glossy béchamel sauce.
- Now you are ready to assemble the dish. Start by spooning a thin layer of Ragu on the bottom of the dish. Begin to fill the tubes with the Ragu sauce using a teaspoon, lining up each tube in the dish as you go.
- Once all the cannelloni tubes are filled and placed in the dish pour the béchamel sauce over the top.
- Cook in the pre-heated oven for 35 to 40 minutes until golden on top and bubbling.
- Serve immediately with a fresh and crunchy salad.
Gluten Free Cannelloni
You could substitute the cannelloni in this recipe for a gluten-free variety. There are some great brands that are popping up in good delis and available to buy on line these days. I personally like Tenuta Marmorelle Gluten Free Cannelloni, sold online in 250g bags.
Gluten free or vegan béchamel sauce
Opt for a gluten free flour such as sweet rice flour when you make a gluten-free béchamel sauce. I like sweet rice flour as it produces a really smooth finish and can be used in the same quantities as regular flour in this recipe.
You could also make a great tasting gluten-free and vegan béchamel sauce using cornflour. Replace the plain flour and the butter for 2 tablespoons of corn flour.
Put the cornflour in a small jug and add a small amount of the cold milk taken from the half pint needed. Mix the corn flour and cold milk to a smooth paste.
Heat the remaining milk until it just reaches boiling point. Then remove from the heat. Gradually pour half of the hot milk onto the corn flour paste and whisk to combine. Now tip this into the pan with the other half of the hot milk. Whisk vigorously over a low to medium heat until thickened. Season to taste.
Beef mince substitute
Using 50% pork mince and 50% beef mince to my healthy cannelloni recipe adds an even softer texture to the finished dish. It also elevates the flavor I find. Try to use the best quality meat you can afford and certainly one with 5 or 10% fat content.
Chicken and turkey are both lower in fat than beef and pork mince so make a good alternative if you are calorie counting. Both provide a high amount of protein as well as iron, zinc, potassium and vitamin B6. All essential for our health and well-being. Swap the same amount of poultry for the beef or beef and pork I’ve used in this recipe and follow the same cooking instructions.
I find that batch cooking a huge pot of the Ragu and then portioning it into handy freezer safe bags and storing in my freezer for when I need it makes life a whole lot easier. Then, when I want to cook cannelloni for dinner I can simply take a portion out of the freezer in the morning and it’ll be thawed out ready for me to assemble in no time.
Alternatively, spoon it over cooked pasta or rice for a quick mid-week dinner or serve it in scooped out peppers or squash as part of an impressive autumnal feast.
You can also leave out the meat and make a batch of good quality homemade tomato sauce. Again, this could be added to pasta to make a delicious veggie dinner or added to meatballs for hearty winter family feast.
I find that leaving the finished meat and tomato sauce to cool once you’ve finished cooking it allows the flavours to mingle and creates an even more delicious and accomplished dish. It’s more time consuming yes, but if like me you’re okay with batch cooking so you have enough to freeze for another day and another dish, this step will be a breeze.
If you’ve batch cooked the meat and tomato sauce, wait until it cools then separate into portions that will be big enough to serve in the quantities you need. One kilo of meat will easily serve six portions.