Julian's Cheese Manicotti
Who on earth is Julian? And if you're Australian, what on earth is manicotti?? Well, Julian is a character from some culinary mystery novels I've been reading recently that were recommended by Anne. The main character is a caterer in a fairly swish area of Colorado and just 'happens' to find herself invovled in lots of exciting mysteries and murders (Isn't it always the way? There's a police show here in Australia called 'Blue Heelers' set in a tiny little town around the mountains. Yet, for this tiny little town they sure have a heck of a lot of murders and terrorist attacks!). The author of these novels, Diane Mott Davidson, is evidently a keen cook and there are many recipes interspersed through the pages. Anne has already blogged about the chocoholic cookies, which I'm keen to make.
After reading three of the novels I had a couple of recipes I wanted to try, including the cookies. There weren't as many as you'd think though, as I found a few of the recipes a little too 'American' in style - involving taste combinations that didn't appeal or ingredient lists skewed towards lots of butter, cream cheese etc. But I have bookmarked a couple to try, and this manicotti recipe was the first - I loved the sound of a cheese filling mixed with fresh basil leaves and a light tomato sauce.
Now, manicotti. It's not something we have in Australia. Cooked hands?? Is that what it means? The cooking instructions made it sound like it was a type of cannelloni pasta tube. Well, evidentally it was a type of pasta that could be filled, so I used up a box of large shells (coniglie) I had. I thought it worked well, and produced something a little more interesting.
Actually, the recipe turned out much heavier than I expected, and was pleasantly filling; enough so that we had leftovers throughout the rest of the week! My brother and his friend, who had been planting trees and laying paving all day, and who were starving in that way young men get after a day's labour, sat down with great enthusiasm, but could only manage one plate. Unheard of - especially for my brother who is the biggest pasta and cheese fan I know! That's not to say he didn't enjoy it - I know he enjoyed eating the leftovers for every meal over the next few days! I think some of the problem in that regard may have been that I didn't bother looking for (and paying lots of money for) fontina cheese, when I knew we had lots of cheese in the fridge. The cheese I used was more strongly flavoured than fontina, so next time I might increase the amount of the bland cheese required and reduce the quantity of the more strongly flavoured cheese (as I can't ever see myself paying lots of money for fontina cheese unless I were trying to impress somebody.... )
Various elements involved in the creation of this dish....the tomato sauce reducing in the pan, the cheese filling, cooked pasta shells, and my own personal lubrication for the lengthy stuffing-of-shells procedure. :-)
I've already mentioned two of the substitutions I made (pasta shells, and non-fontina cheese), but I did make a few more. I used cottage cheese rather than ricotta because a: it's healthier and lighter b: it was 'price reduced for quick sale!' (second reason overshadowed the first, to be honest!). I had mozzarella in the fridge, and those two cheeses combined with the various bits of cheddar and Tasty in the fridge made a strongly flavoured cheese mixture that somewhat overpowered the fresh basil (I'd even doubled the quantity of the herbs). I couldn't see the point of using 6 large eggs, in the mixture, so I reduced it to 4 without any problems. I also couldn't see any reason for adding 6 TABLESPOONS of butter to the mixture. WTF?? I mean, is that a typing error? I somehow doubt it - I tend to believe it's one of those 'typical' American recipes I see that make me shudder. I mean, after however many pounds of cheese and eggs, they want me to add 6 tablespoons of butter? I don't think so! I think the filling was fine without the added cholesterol, to be honest.
So, I can still recommend this recipe as it was really tasty, but I'd suggest lightening the filling a little if you were to make it for your family. Of course, if you were planning a group death a la 'La Grande Bouffe' style, it'd be a great addition in its original format - just don't forget to finish off with a dessert blacmange in the shape and colour of wobbling breasts, ok? ;-)
Read on for the recipe:
Julian's Cheese Manicotti
from 'The Cereal Murders' by Dianne Mott Davidson
Makes 7 servings
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, pressed or chopped
2 Tbls olive oil
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste, plus water (or 1 can chopped tomatoes plus some paste and water)
2 Tbls finely chopped fresh oregano
1 small bay leaf
1 teaspoon olive oil
14 manicotti noodles
1 1/2 cups ricotta or cottage cheese
6 large eggs
3/4 pound Fontina cheese, grated
1/4 pound mozzarella cheese, grated
1/3 cup freshly grated best-quality Parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons soft butter (not margarine)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2-3 tbls finely chopped fresh basil leaves
freshly grated Parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top.
Preheat the oven to 180C (350c). To make the sauce, gently saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil in a saucempan over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir. Slowly add 4 tomato paste cans of water and stir. Add the seasonings and allow the sauce to simmer while you prepare the manicotti filling.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the olive oil, and drop in the manicotti. Cook just until al dente, about 10-15 minutes. Drain and run cold water over the manicotti in a colander. Set aside.
To make the filling, beat the ricotta with the eggs until combined. Add the grated cheeses and softened butter; beat until combined. Add the salt, pepper and basil. Beat on low just until everything is combined.
Gently fill the cooked manicotti with the cheese mixture and arrange in 2 9x13 inch pans. Cover the pasta in each pan with half the sauce; sprinkle on additional parmesan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is thoroughly melted and the sauce is bubbling.