MAN O MANICOTTI
In fairness, I stole the line from my husband, Lynn. Perhaps it was because when the kids were little I would make manicotti or its sister dish, stuffed shells, at least once a week. My repertoire also consisted of a crepe version stuffed with mushrooms, cheese and spinach or a Mexican spin-off also made with crepes and filled with cumin and chili-flavored ground meat with jalapeños, onions and cheddar. Then there was always the very time-consuming Italian-American version using store bought manicotti noodles (usually the Ronzoni brand) where the noodles had to be boiled, then cooled enough to handle so you could pick them up one by one and then stuffed with ricotta cheese that was usually mixed with some fresh parsley and some egg. A tomato and meat sauce would be ladled on top and then some grated mozzarella cheese would be sprinkled on top of that. Covered with tinfoil, the whole thing would then be put in the oven to bake for at least half an hour.
Once everyone in the family decided that we didn’t really like ricotta very much (especially when it’s baked in a casserole type dish) and that this dish was way too heavy and fattening anyway, I stopped making it.
But then Lynn and I went to Washington, D.C. one weekend and tried a type of manicotti – “canelones” (their spelling) at Jaleo which were filled with ground pork and topped with a bechamel sauce and it was absolutely delicious. I was inspired to bring new life to this old dish.
So on a regular weekday night after I got home from work and the daily dining dilemma question was at hand, I decided to make manicotti. To make the filling, I took out a package of ground pork (at the very recession friendly price of $1.59) from the refrigerator where it had been defrosting since yesterday. I sliced up some shallots, added some diced pancetta and began to cook the meat. Spices? Dried dill and fresh parsley were added to the mixture. A quick bechamel (butter, flour, milk) was made and I poured about one-third of the bechamel into the by now cooked meat mixture. I put on a pot of water to boil and when bubbling, added the manicotti noodles.
I looked at the noodles swimming in the water and then at the stuffing. Um, it was looking a little too much like an “all beige” meal. Rummaging around in the fridge, I found some grape tomatoes that had started to wrinkle a bit so I rinsed them off and then tossed them with some olive oil and salt and pepper and put them under the broiler to roast a bit. I thought this would be a great topping to the manicotti — imparting not only a little color but taste to boot.
The manicotti had finished cooking but were still too hot to handle. Once they had cooled down a bit, I began the laborious task of stuffing them with the mixture. I still haven’t figured out how to do this without having all the stuffing fall out the other end other than by not putting to much in at one time. In fairness, it did take me about 15 minutes to get this part of the dish done, arranging the manicotti in a baking dish, putting the rest of the bechamel sauce on top with the by now roasted tomatoes on top of that.
I won’t dare be so bold to say it was as delicious as what we had that night at Jaleo but it was pretty good for a regular weekday dinner.