Tony writes: “What about manicotti?” a student recently asked me after a cooking class. We were talking pasta because, well, that’s what people do after cooking classes. But the question caught me off guard. I don’t make manicotti. I’ll eat it, sure, and I’ve occasionally made cannelloni with fresh pasta (which begets another controversy: the difference between those two), but the question was dried manicotti. And, besides occasionally glancing at those big-momma boxes next to the shells in the pasta aisle and wondering, I lacked the prerequisite wisdom to continue the chit chat. So I ended the conversation with my best mysterious smile (maybe the teacher knew more about stuffed pastas than he was letting on) and promised myself never again to be stymied by a manicotti question. Last Sunday, I spent the better part of a day playing around with the dried tubes. I learned that manicotti – the noodle itself (specifically Barilla’s) – is not particularly delicate (the ridged pasta has a thickness similar to dried lasagna). But it’s easy to make look pretty on a dinner plate and offers wonderful options for filling. Upon completion of a couple of successful tests, I got kinda euphoric and decided that manicotti would now by part of my monthly repertoire (and that it should be part of yours, too).
– Go big: I advise making a big (ie: double) batch. As with a lasagna, the assembly process is clunky enough to merit making a 2nd pan if you’re of the mind. Note: I did freeze some of the manicotti below and they did fine. I did leave this recipe as a single batch, but do double everything if you like (just make sure to saute the spinach in 2 batches or 2 pans).
– The filling: Something happened with me and ricotta when I was young. Probably took on too big of a stuffed shell at some point, but the lasting impact has been that I’m gloppy-cheese-averse. A little creaminess is fine but the clogged-mouth-peanut-butter-effect is not. So for the spinach and mushroom filling below, I went relatively light on the ricotta. I also made a meat topping (alternating between each in the assembly) and mixed in some of this spinach topping to give the meat a little more moisture and make them easier to stuff into the tubes.
RECIPE (Serves 4)
1. Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook 1 box dried manicotti (8-oz box; 14 tubes), stirring occasionally, until it’s tender, but still toothy, about 6 min. Drain well and transfer to a large baking sheet to cool.
2. Make the spinach-mushroom filling: Heat 1 clove garlic (thinly sliced) with 2 Tbs. olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until the garlic sizzles steadily and becomes fragrant, about 1 1/2 min. Add 10 oz. sliced white mushrooms and 3.5 oz. shiitakes (stemmed and sliced), sprinkle with 1 tsp. kosher salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper and cook, tossing occasionally until the mushrooms brown and soften, 2 to 3 min. Add 10 oz. washed spinach and cook, tossing with tongs, until the spinach just wilts. Remove the pan from the heat and let cool for 10 min. Add to a food processor and pulse to coarsely chop. Add an 8-oz. container ricotta, 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano, and 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil and pulse to incorporate. Season with S+P to taste.
3. Make the meat filling: Set another large heavy-based skillet over medium-high heat for 1 min. Add 2 Tbs. olive oil and once its shimmering hot, about 1 min., add 1/2 lb. ground beef (preferably chuck) and 1/2 lb. ground pork. Season with 1 tsp. kosher salt and 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes cook, occasionally chopping up with a spatula, until the meat loses it’s raw color. Toss with 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano, and 1 cup of the spinach mixture and season to taste with S+P.
4. Assemble and bake: Heat the oven to 425F. Spread some marinara sauce (about 1 cup) on the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish. Using a small spoon, gently shovel the meat and spinach fillings into the shells and then, using your index finger, slide the filling off the spoon (and into the shell). Alternating between the spinach and meat manicotti, line the tubes next to each other in the baking dish (so they’re touching). Top generously with more marinara sauce and then sprinkle with thin slices of fresh mozzarella (8 oz.) and 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano. Bake until the cheese melts and the sauce bubbles around the sides of the baking dish, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.