Real Italians – read with care. New Jersey Italians – fistpump.

Be merciful, oh omnipotent Italian grandmothers!  I know not what I do.  It’s just that… I’m really lazy.  And thankfully, my own grandmothers are not Italian, so I think in the immediate future I will be ok.  I love me some Americanized Italian dishes.  What do Americans do best, if not make things our own? (for good or bad, your choice)  I make that distinction because I’m sure what I’m making would make any dead traditional Italian roll in their graves.  But my counter argument is pretty good… bacon.

As Ned Stark so accurately put it, winter is coming.  And even though in New Jersey winter is still technically a month away, the 19 inches of snow we had a few weeks ago says otherwise.  And winter food is the best, hands down – rich, creamy, satisfying and warming all in one.  Manicotti ranks right up there with things I love in winter, which also includes fuzzy blankets and no baseball.  And I happen to like my spin on it, even if it’s the Meg-style Italian cooking.

First things first, anticipate a little more than an hour to make said dish from start to finish, which makes it a good weekday-evening-with-no-plans dinner.  Keep in mind, this recipe is all about multitasking.  Second things second, fill a pot with enough water to boil the manicotti shells in.  While you wait for the water to boil, make the filling…my favorite is spinach-mushroom-bacon filling.  Thaw maybe a cup of frozen spinach in a bowl with water.  Fry up a 3-in. piece of fatty bacon, or use a teaspoon of leftover bacon fat that I know you have in the back of your fridge.  Render all of the fat so the bacon gets crispy – make sure you cook it at a low temp so that the bacon doesn’t burn before all the fat comes out.

While that cooks, chop up 5 cremini mushrooms.  When the bacon is crisp, scoop it out and put the mushrooms in, keeping it at a low temperature.  By now the water should be boiling; add the pasta shells and cook for 7 minutes.  While the mushrooms cook and the pasta boils, add the rest of the fillings in a medium glass bowl.  This includes a 15-oz. package of ricotta cheese, 1 egg, ¼ cup parmesan cheese, 1 cup shredded mozzarella, ½ teaspoon parsley, ½ tsp basil, a sprinkle of nutmeg and the thawed spinach.  I’ll give you a tip with thawing spinach:

–         Thaw in bowl with cool water
–         When thawed, line a strainer with a paper towel, then dump the spinach inside the towel
–         Let most of the water drain through, then pick up the towel by the ends to make a little thawed spinach dumpling
–         Twist the paper towel, which in turn squeezes out the water

You can also do this with a clean dish towel, although like noted before, I am lazy and you have to clean a towel.  Just be careful when using a paper towel that it doesn’t rip.

Mix all the filling ingredients together, then add the now finished mushrooms and fold in.  By now the pasta will be done; drain and add cold water so the pasta is easily handled.  Preheat your oven to 350, and spray oil a baking dish that will fit the amount of pasta you cooked.  Now here is the heathen part of this recipe.  Technically you’re supposed to use a piping bag/plastic bag with the tip cut off to fill the shells.  But I, being lazy, take the easy route of slitting the pasta down the side to open up the whole tube, then filling it and putting it seam side down in the baking dish.   Shh… no one will ever know.   Except the omnipotent Italian grandmothers.

Cover this sucker with tomato sauce (either homemade or jarred, I promise I won’t judge) edge to edge so the pasta doesn’t burn.  I happened to have made a pot of Italian gravy a few days before this, hence why I was making manicotti in the first place.  Top this with some good ole mozzarella and an extra dose of parmesan cheese, and you are golden.  Heave it into the prewarmed oven and bake for 35 until hot and bubblicious.  While waiting, drink the wine that I know you have in your house somewhere.  When the 35 minutes are up, take the pasta out and let it sit so that you won’t burn the roof of your mouth *too* bad when you eat it too quick.

Plate it, put on some good trashy TV, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  You’ve earned it.


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