So we’ve all got that one thing we can cook like a champ, whether you need to impress the boss or the mother-in-law or your probation officer, or you’ve just planned an impromptu dinner party and need something reliable in a flash. The recipe we can school pretty much blindfolded, our signature dish, our piece de resistance… and mine happens to be a mean beef manicotti. I don’t know how it originated exactly, but it’s grown from something simple (ie tomato sauce from a jar) and delicious to a rather time-consuming crowd-pleaser as my cooking skills have gotten a little better. It’s not difficult by any means, but you’ll need a couple of hours of cooking time to get it ready to go, but remember that thing I said about crowd-pleasing? I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to take all the time in the world if it means a round of applause for my efforts. I am, however, a needy actor who craves constant affirmation and attention and ego strokes of all kinds. Rather obnoxious, I know. But look how cute I am!
Bonus for this recipe is we’re throwing the whole idea of making your own manicotti shells out the window. I’m sure some jerk’s gonna tell me how to do just that in the comments section of this post, and for that I say, “Thanks, nice jerk!”. But today we are getting our shells out of a box, people. Let’s be real. Everything else is cooked from scratch, though, and all the effort’s mad worth it in the end. Trust.
(Also it goes without saying that drinking a nice red barolo while cooking this recipe really brings out the Italian Nonna in you.)
Ingredients for filling:
One box of manicotti shells (should be about 12 shells in a box)
1 lb extra lean ground beef
1 lb ground pork
1 box of frozen chopped spinach
2 eggs, beaten
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup whole milk
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 cup ricotta cheese (go full fat here, my friends. None of that skim ricotta shit)
a dash of nutmeg
salt and pepper
Ingredients for Tomato Sauce:
2 28 oz cans of diced tomatoes
1 medium sized onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp or so of anchovy paste (I said trust me)
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup of that red wine you’re drinking
1 tbsp sugar
salt and pepper
1 bunch of basil, stemmed and chopped or even torn by hand
Ingredients for Bechamel Sauce:
3 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp flour
2 cups whole milk
dash of nutmeg
salt and pepper
Other Ingredients and Requirements:
A 9 x 12 oven-safe dish
a drizzle of olive oil for greasing the dish
A couple cups of grated pecorino romano cheese, plus more to pass around the table (Whole Foods sells it in the cheese section already grated and in a plastic container)
Garlic Bread for mopping up sauce/pigging out
First, start the tomato sauce because it has to simmer and get to know itself. Heat a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat with the olive oil. Sweat out the onions and garlic for a few minutes until they soften. Move the onions to the side and add the anchovy paste and red pepper flakes into the oil, letting the anchovy paste melt a bit. I’m telling you, this is the secret ingredient in my tomato sauce, and it does not taste like fish and stop being a baby. It gives the sauce a whole different level of savoury deliciousness. Add the wine to deglaze the pan, let it reduce for a minute or two. Add both cans of tomatoes, the sugar, and give it all a good stir. Season with some salt and pepper and stir in the basil. Bring to a boil and then simmer it on low heat for an hour before you start your filling. (This sauce is also pretty amazing with spaghetti and meatballs, or chicken parmesan, or as a simple sauce for a vegetarian penne marinara, if you’re one of THOSE.)
For the filling, first you need to defrost your spinach. The best way is taking the wrapping off the box and microwaving it in the box in a microwave-safe bowl for about 5 minutes. If you don’t have a microwave, just make sure you take out the box of spinach a few hours before you’re going to cook and defrost it in the sink. Using your hands, squeeze the excess water out of the spinach. You can also put it in a clean dish towel and wring the hell out of it which is what Rachael Ray does, and she has an actual TV show. Next, get a deep pan and heat it over high heat with the olive oil. Add all the meat, season with salt and pepper generously, and brown it well for about five minutes. Add in the onions, garlic, oregano, and spinach, seasoning again with a little salt and pepper. Combine it all well, season with a dash of nutmeg, and stir in the scrambled eggs, keeping the mixture moving so you don’t have a weird omelette on your hands. Add the milk, cook for a minute or two more, then turn off the heat. Move the mixture into a large bowl, stir in the ricotta, and then taste it for seasoning. Move it into the fridge to be cool enough to handle while you boil your shells.
This is where it gets real hard: Boil a big pot of water and follow the directions on the box of shells for al dente, usually about 4 to 5 minutes of boiling time. Get them out of the water and into a colander to strain. DON’T RINSE THE SHELLS WITH WATER, FOOLS! The starch already on the pasta helps sauce adhere to it, so leave it alone.
Now for the tedious part: Grab a friend or a boyfriend who owes you one because he used (and broke) your $40 bottle of imported olive oil as a hammer for smashing hazelnuts, and get to filling your shells. Grease your 9 x 11 baking pan with a drizzle of olive oil, and spoon a big ladle full of tomato sauce on the bottom. Hold a shell in your hand over the dish, cupping the bottom of the shell. Take a spoon and start filling the shell at the top until full but not bulging– be careful, as they break easily, and then the world will end. (Just kidding, the sauce will cover up any ripped shells and no one will really notice). Lay those babies in the dish side by side. You should have a pretty perfect filling to shell ratio, but if there’s any extra, just tuck it in the loneliest-looking shells.
Start your bechamel. Take another pot and melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk for a few minutes. Slowly add in your milk, whisking away, until incorporated and lumpless. Raise the heat to get the milk simmering and thickening, add a dash of nutmeg, and salt and pepper. Once it coats the back of a spoon, it’s ready to go.
Pour the bechamel over the manicotti. Pour/dot the rest of the tomato sauce over the top of that. Cover it up with foil and bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes. Take it out and let it rest for 5 or 10 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with a handful of grated pecorino romano cheese. Go to town. Your friends will love you.
SERVES 6 PIGS (two manicottis each)