Eric Akis: Ham’s encore a cheesy casserole

Eric Akis

If you’re one of the many folks baking a big, beautiful ham for Easter, in a day or two you may wonder what to do with the leftovers. If you enjoy cheesy, bubbling casseroles, I have one tasty possibility for you.

That’s to cube up some of that ham, combine it with tortellini and other tasty things and bake them until hot and delicious. I’ve done all that in today’s recipe and created a hearty, comforting meal.

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You start preparing the dish by making a white sauce; milk thickened with a roux, a mixture of butter and flour. You heat the roux in a pot a few minutes to cook the raw flour taste out of it, before slowly whisking in warm milk.

If you add the milk too quickly, use cold milk or whisk too slowly, you could get lumps in your sauce, as bits of roux not completely blended into the milk will form into small balls. Using warm milk also helps the sauce come to a simmer and thicken more quickly, making it less likely to scorch on the bottom as it heats.

When your white sauce is ready, you remove it from the heat. You then mix in some grated asiago cheese, an Italian-style cow’s milk cheese with a rich, nutty flavour. Do not add the cheese to the sauce while it’s simmering as that can cause it to overcook, start to separate and give the surface of the sauce an oily, almost curdled look.

A 700-gram package of fresh cheese-filled tortellini needed for the recipe is sold at most supermarkets. Once simmered until just tender, that tortellini is mixed into the sauce, along with the ham, sliced canned artichoke hearts and some fresh basil.

The mixture is then spooned into a 13x9-inch casserole, topped with halved cherry tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, and then it’s ready to be baked. When baked, you could serve this tortellini casserole with a green or caesar salad.

Baked Tortellini with Ham, Asiago, Artichokes and Tomatoes

Use up some of your leftover Easter ham in this hearty, filling pasta casserole.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: about 45 minutes

Makes: six to eight servings

1 (700-gram) pkg. cheese-filled fresh tortellini

1/4 cup soft butter, plus some for the dish

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 (1 litre) container homo or 2% milk, warmed (see Note 1)

150 grams asiago cheese, grated (see Note 2)

• salt and white pepper to taste

1 (14 oz./398 mL) can artichokes hearts, drained well, each halved and cut lengthwise into thin wedges

1 1/2 cups ham, cut into small cubes

10 large fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced, widthwise (divided)

10 to 12 grape or other small cherry tomato, each halved

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Lightly butter a 13x9-inch, at least two-inch tall, casserole, and then set aside. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil to cook the pasta.

As the water is coming to a boil, melt the 1/4 cup butter in a second large pot set over medium heat. Stir in flour until well combined. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of the milk. When mixture becomes very thick, slowly whisk in the rest of the milk.

Bring this white sauce to a simmer, whisking frequently so it does not scorch on the bottom. Simmer one to two minutes, until lightly thickened.

Remove pot from heat and stir in the asiago cheese. Season the sauce with salt and pepper, and then cover and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. When water is boiling, add the tortellini and cooked until just tender (check package for suggested cooking time). When cooked, reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water. Now drain the tortellini well.

Uncover the sauce, and then mix in the tortellini, artichokes, ham, three quarters of the sliced basil and the 1/2 cup pasta cooking water. Spoon the tortellini mixture into the casserole. Set the tomatoes at different points on top of the tortellini, pushing down on them so they are partially submerged. Sprinkle tortellini with Parmesan cheese.

Bake the tortellini in the middle of the oven 25 to 28 minutes, until bubbling and piping hot. Turn the oven to broil. Broil the tortellini two minutes, or until light golden on top. Sprinkle tortellini with remaining basil, and then serve.

Note 1: The milk could be warmed to just below a simmer in the microwave, or in a medium pot on the stove set over low heat.

Note 2: Asiago cheese is sold at most supermarkets. Choose a piece of it that’s firm enough to grate.

Fine B.C. Wine featured at Make-a-Wish Event

B.C. wine enthusiasts take note that Make-A-Wish B.C. & Yukon is holding their annual ReWined event this Wednesday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Victoria’s Crystal Garden, 713 Douglas St. During the evening, the 20-plus members of Naramata Bench Wineries Association (naramatabench.com) will pour samples from their exclusive spring releases.

Naramata Bench is on the southeast shore of Lake Okanagan and its soil composition and microclimate make it uniquely suited to growing a wide variety of grapes that consistently produce complex, balanced wines.

While sampling those wines at ReWined you’ll also be able to nibble on small plates of food prepared by some of Greater Victoria’s top restaurants and food providers, such as Agrius, Charelli’s, Sooke Harbour House, Spinnakers and Truffles Catering.

Tickets for ReWined are $100 per person and can be purchased online at hibid.ca/events/rewined-victoria-2019. You will receive a tax receipt for a portion of the ticket price. Funds raised at ReWined will help Make-A-Wish B.C. & Yukon grant life-changing wishes to children living with a critical illness on Vancouver Island.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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