Thursday, March 22, 2012

NOT my Aunt Dee's Manicotti

As you can probably already tell from some of my recipes, some of my favorite foods are italian food. There is just nothing better to me than a saucy pasta dish paired with a piece of fresh, crusty bread and a glass of fine red wine. No, my family is not Italian. Not even close. I didn't grow up eating a ton of wonderful Italian food with huge Godfather-esque family gatherings. My family gatherings usually looked more like an episode of Green Acres. (I wouldn't have it any other way!) However, my husband is one fourth Italian! That has to count for something! 
I Aunt Dee is famous for her manicotti. In fact, I can't really remember her making anything else! I'm sure she did, but her manicotti is so good that's all I seem to remember! She would let go of the recipe, unfortunately. Maybe one day when she's old and gray I can get it from her, but until then, I've had to come up with my own! I decided to go with a manicotti with a meat sauce, and spinach and ricotta filling. It turned out so good! I still can't compare it to Aunt Dee's manicotti, but it was darn tasty! Also, my version is low fat!



1 28 oz. can Cento Whole Tomatoes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb. 95/5 lean ground beef
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 small red bell pepper, chopped
1 tsp fennel seed
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 package manicotti noodles (I found whole wheat at Whole Foods, if you want to go that route)
1 16oz tub part skim or fat free ricotta cheese
1 package frozen spinach, drained
3-4 ounces fresh parmesan cheese
1 cup part skim mozzarella cheese, shredded

First, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Start a pot of water to boil on the stove for your noodles. Salt and add just a few drops of olive oil to the water. Drop your manicotti noodles once it comes to a rolling boil. Leave for about 1-2 minutes, then turn off. I drain the noodles at this point. I don't want them to cook all the way, because they will cook more in the oven. Set noodles aside.

You can start on your sauce while you are boiling the noodles if you are a multi-tasker. Personally, when I have the time, I start the sauce early in the day and let it simmer for a few hours. I almost never have that kind of time, though. Isn't that what a crockpot is for, anyway? Works just as well! Saute your ground beef in a pan with your olive oil. Once it is browned, add onion and bell pepper and continue to cook until onion is translucent. Add can of tomatoes, garlic, fennel and red pepper. You can use an emulsion blender if you have one to break up the tomatoes. After a few minutes they break down on their own and you can do it with a fork, if you don't have one. I like to use the whole tomatoes, because they seem to have more of that fresh flavor. I'm a tomato fanatic, so I'm kind of picky. Once it comes to a boil, let simmer on a medium-low heat until needed to pour over stuffed noodles. 

While your sauce is simmer, it's time to mix the filling and stuff those puppies! To get the spinach where you need it, it will either need to already be defrosted or you can do it in the microwave. I just put in frozen in a microwave-safe bowl for about 4 minutes. Once it is out, you can cool it down by putting it under running water. You'll need to squeeze out any excess liquid with a cheesecloth or thin kitchen towel. (A clean one, obviously). Mix together in a large bowl with the ricotta cheese. I add a little bit of Parmesan cheese to this mixture, too. 

Now, for the stuffing. I can't ever get them to stuff without breaking the noodles. I go ahead and break the noodles myself, and treat them like a tortilla. I slather the mixture on with my cute little baby spoon, and wrap it up just as if I were making enchiladas and put it into the casserole dish. Check out my baby spoon. :)
 Before you add any noodles to your dish (I use a glass 13x9 casserole dish), add about 1/2 cup of sauce to the bottom. That way the noodles have something to sit on.
 Add the noodles, top with the remaining sauce. Yes, you will have a lot. Yes, it will fill up the pan. You don't have to add this much, but like I said before, I like it extra-saucy. 
Top with your mozzarella cheese and bake until top is golden and bubbly. That will probably take about 35 minutes or so. Let it set for about 20 minutes before serving. It will still be warm and gooey, but the sauce won't run everywhere when you cut it. Before serving, top with parmesan and fresh chopped basil. 

No, it wasn't my Aunt Dee's manicotti, but it sure was good! This would make a great freezer meal, too!

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