AN ITALIAN STATE OF MIND – MANGIA ! MANGIA !
Did I already mention that we love Italian food? Department of Redundancy Department. I made my first Cheese Manicotti following the amazing Anna Thomas’s recipe in The Vegetarian Epicure when I was in college and it was simply fabulous! I continued to make it on special occasions or on those rare evenings when I had invited people over. But I haven’t made it in years, ever since we became health (cholesterol) and weight conscious. But browsing other food blogs, I have seen so many luscious photos of Italian food, lasagne, spaghetti, cannelloni, I figured “Just once, who’s it gonna kill?”
Cannelloni or Manicotti shells are extremely difficult to find in France – at least where I live. I did happen to stumble upon a box at the hypermarché this summer and snapped it up. Should have grabbed two or three. I recently discovered the box was half empty, and asking around I found out that Clem and JP actually made cannelloni this summer when I was in Florida! Well, my first reaction was “What nerve!” but then once I calmed down I was pretty proud of them actually having cooked a full meal while I was out of town.
But now how was I to make my famous Manicotti with not enough shells? I ran next door to the Monoprix and bought a box of lasagna noodles and decided to redo the dish in another form. Facile!
I did follow Anna Thomas’ filling recipe, but decided to make my own sauce. Now, normally, I am rarely thrilled with my tomato sauce recipes, but actually this one turned out fantastic! This, I can proudly say, is the best, most flavorful sauce I have ever made. Thank goodness I wrote down the recipe!
As you know, I have been invited to the 2nd Annual Festa Italiana hosted by Maryann of Finding la Dolce Vita and Marie of Proud Italian Cook. And what a party it is going to be! People are already cooking up a storm (see here and here).
I already prepared Panna Cotta – both chocolate and vanilla – with Lingue di Gatto al cioccolato, but I wanted to bring a savory hot dish as well. I mean, when it comes to parties, the more the merrier, whether party-goers or food! So I decided to make this dish again, this time using a newly found box of Manicotti Shells. What better excuse than a party?
RED WINE TOMATO MARINARA SAUCE
Good quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or minced
3 cups (750 ml) tomato purée
1 whole bay leaf
1 tsp dried oregano
Salt & freshly ground pepper
1 large red pepper, roasted, peeled and puréed
2 juice glasses/ about 1 cup (300 ml) liquid, either all dry, red wine or half wine/half water or even a little vegetable stock *
Big pinch sugar (offsets the acidity of the tomatoes)
* I used ½ cup (or about 150 ml) dry red wine – Valpolicella and ½ cup (150 ml) water
Roast, peel and purée the red pepper and set aside.
In a medium saucepan over medium flame, heat the olive oil then add the chopped onion. Cook, stirring, until onion is soft and transparent. Add the chopped garlic and continue cooking until the onion begins to turn golden.
Add tomato purée, the wine/water (I used half wine, half water), the oregano and bay leaf, the red pepper purée and salt and pepper and the pinch of sugar. Stir with the wooden spoon until it just comes to the boil. Lower the heat/flame, partially cover the pot (leaving just enough space open to allow the steam to escape) and allow to simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
When done, taste and adjust seasonings, and remove from the heat.
Sheets of lasagne pasta, enough to make two layers in your baking dish
Red Wine Tomato Marinara Sauce
3 cups (750 g) ricotta cheese
2 eggs, beaten
2 Tbs dried parsley or ½ cup (handful) chopped fresh parsley
½ tsp salt
4 Tbs finely chopped onion (about half an onion)
½ cup (50 g) grated parmesan cheese
½ cup (50 g) grated parmesan cheese + 5 oz (150 g) grated mozzarella for topping
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
Beat the eggs, then stir in the dried or chopped parsley.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, the eggs/parsley mixture, the salt, the finely chopped onion and ½ cup grated parmesan cheese. Blend well.
Take a large baking dish and spread a ladleful of the tomato sauce evenly over the bottom.
Lay down a layer of lasagne noodles (I made the mistake of pre-cooking the lasagna sheets for 5 minutes and they ended up ripping a bit when I worked with them).
Spoon half of the cheese filling over the noodles and smooth it evenly with the back of a spoon. Then half of the remaining tomato sauce, then repeat : noodles, cheese filling then finish with the rest of the sauce.
Sprinkle the remaining parmesan cheese and the grated mozzarella evenly all over the top of the lasagne.
Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes (depends on oven and size of baking dish/thickness of lasagne) until the lasagne is bubbling and the cheese is melted and browning.
FOR THE FESTA ITALIANA
I finally found more Manicotti shells and decided to redo this dish to bring to the Festa Italiana. I used a large baking dish, filled about 16 manicotti shells with the ricotta (half cow’s milk and half buffalo ricotta) filling using a pastry bad with a tip with a large hole, lined them up over half of the sauce, covered with the rest of the sauce then finished with slices of fresh mozzarella and a hearty sprinkling of grated Parmesan.
I baked it for about 30 minutes until the sauce was bubbling and the cheeses were melted and browned.
And once cut, look at the colors of the Italian Flag! Bellissimo!