Streamlined Baked Manicotti

Baked ManicottiEasy Peasy Manicotti

The temperatures as of late have had all of us feeling as if we are living on the face of the sun…and pasta is probably the last thing you want for dinner. But I’m making this tonight for a couple of good reasons.

My mother made Manicotti when I was young—it was super-tasty. We loved it. It was also a pain in the butt to prepare. You gotta boil the noodle tubes, keep them from sticking  together, make sure they don’t break, fill them carefully with the cheese, set them in the dish…yada yada yada. When I saw this streamlined recipe (while living the life of leisure up at Tahoe), I knew I had to give it a try. No-boil lasagna noodles turn this time-consuming task into something that can be done mid-week for dinner. Crazy!

The other bonus, and the real reason I wanted to make this Manicotti dish, is that it is easily freezable. Make two batches, and freeze one for later. Perfect! As our back-to-school days rapidly approach, and the schedule goes wonky, it is nice to know that I will have something for dinner that has at least some redeeming nutritional value. (No. Cereal does not count.)

This recipe comes from a collection that Cook’s Illustrated put out for Fall called All-Time Best Make-Ahead Recipes. It’s on newsstands now, and I am planning to try a number of possibilities, for stocking our freezer.

Streamlined Baked Manicotti
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated All-Time Best Make-Ahead Recipes

For the Tomato Sauce
2 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 minced garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (if you like it a little spicy)
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh basil

For the Cheese Filling
1 1/2 pound (about 3 cups) part-skim ricotta cheese
8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese (about 2 cups)
4 ounces Parmasean cheese (about 2 cups)
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons chopped, fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped, fresh basil
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
16 no-boil lasagna noodles

For the Tomato Sauce
In a food processor, plus 1 can of the tomatoes until they are coarsely chopped (3 or 4 pulses). Transfer to a bowl, and repeat with the remaining can of tomatoes.

Heat the olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring continuously until the garlic turns golden, but does not brown (about 3 minutes). Add the tomatoes and about 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Simmer until the sauce thickens, stirring   frequently (about 15 minutes). Add the basil and season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the Filling
Mix ricotta, mozzarella, 1 cup of the Parmesan, eggs, parsley, basil, lemon zest, salt and pepper in a bowl.

Pour two inches of boiling water into a 13” x 9” broiler-safe baking dish. Slip the noodles into the water, one by one, and soak them until pliable (about 5 minutes). Gently separate the noodles with a fork or the tip of a paring knife to prevent sticking. When soft, remove the noodles, and place in a single layer on clean dish towels, and blot dry. Discard water and dry damp dish.

Assemble the Manicotti
Spread 1 1/2 cups of sauce evenly over the bottom of the baking dish. Lay the noodles so that the short side faces you. Using a soup spoon, spread 1/4 cup of the cheese mixture evenly over the bottom 3/4 of the short side of each noodle. Roll the noodles around the cheese to form a tube shape, and arrange in the baking dish so that the seam side is down. Top the manicotti evenly with the remaining sauce. Make certain the noodles are covered.

At this point you can store the dish by covering it with a sheet of parchment paper, and wrapping it tightly in plastic wrap. It can be refrigerated for up to 3 days, or frozen up to one month.

If frozen, allow the casserole to thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours before baking. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position, and preheat the oven to 375º. Remove the parchment paper and plastic wrap, cover with foil and bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Rotate the dish halfway through the baking time. Remove the dish from the oven. and remove the foil, Adjust the over rack so it is 6 inches below the broiler, and heat the broiler. Sprinkle manicotti and the remaining cup of Parmesan over the dish, and broil until the cheese is spotted with brown (about 4 to 6 minutes).

Let the manicotti cool for 15 minutes before serving.

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