OK, I will start by saying that I don't usually like manicotti. This is because ricotta cheese is pretty boring, in my opinion, and texturally is just a little off. But, thanks to Mel, I am now a fan. Of this manicotti recipe only. The secret is lots of herbs in the ricotta (and a ton of mozzarella and parmesan along with it), and the fact that you simply soften no-boil lasagna noodles, spread the filling, and roll up into a tube. This produces more of a homemade pasta effect, and for some reason tastes far superior than any manicotti I've had where you mercilessly stuff cheese into those thick, dried manicotti tubes. Another bonus of this recipe is that it can be made far ahead (she says up to 3 days!), so that you are ready to roll with less stress when dinner time comes around. If making this dish from start to finish is too overwhelming of a task, make the sauce a day ahead (and even mix up the filling if you'd like) a day or two ahead and your meal prep is even simpler. Convinced yet? I thought so.
For the tomato sauce:
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (in juice)
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 medium cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons dried basil
Heat oil, garlic, and pepper flakes (if using) in large saucepan over medium heat until fragrant but not brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, basil and 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes.
For the cheese filling and pasta:
- 3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
- 2 cups shredded parmesan
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella
- 2 large eggs , lightly beaten
- 3/4 teaspoon table salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves (or 2 1/2 teaspoons dried parsley--but, you should know that the fresh will have a big flavor impact here)
- 16 no-boil lasagna noodles (ie: Barilla)
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried basil). I prefer fresh and use more than 2 teaspoons. Is there such thing as too much basil? No.
In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, eggs, salt, pepper, and herbs; set aside. To assemble, pour 1 inch boiling water into 13 by 9-inch baking dish, then add noodles one at a time. Let noodles soak until pliable, about 5 minutes, separating noodles with tip of sharp knife to prevent sticking. Remove noodles from water and place in single layer on clean kitchentowels; discard water in baking dish and dry baking dish to be used again for baking. Here are my noodles after their bath, ready to be filled and rolled.
Spread bottom of baking dish evenly with 1 1/2 cups sauce. Using asoup spoon, spread 1/4 cup cheese mixture evenly onto bottom three-quarters of each noodle (with short side facing you), leaving top quarter of noodle exposed. Roll into tube shape and arrange in baking dish seam side down. (You should be able to fit 8 manicotti in each row, allowing all 16 to fit in the dish). Top evenly with remaining sauce, making certain that pasta is completely covered. Below is a sample noodle with the filling spread on it, and one that is rolled and in the pan. I promise it's not as hard or time consuming as it sounds.
Cover manicotti with aluminum foil. Bake until bubbling, about 40 minutes, then remove foil. Sprinkle manicotti evenly with remaining 1 cup Parmesan. Bake until cheese is browned and bubbly, about 6-7 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes before serving. If you are baking straight from the fridge, increase the baking time to about 1 hr and 15 minutes. You can also freeze it before baking, just make sure to thaw in the fridge for a day or two before doing so. You'll have to forgive me for not taking a pic of the finished dish, but I made this for company the other night and thought I might appear odd if I took a pic before we ate...use your imagination!