When friends ask me for some make ahead meal ideas, one of my first recommendations are for stuffed or layered pastas such as stuffed shells, lasagna or even manicotti. For one, stuffed and layered pastas allow for a lot of improvisation. You're able to get away with throwing random ingredients together mixed with a cheesy creamy filling, cover with sauce, top with cheese and bake away. These dishes are also great for freezing... and I've found that they make the best leftovers after the flavors have time to really meld.
I tend to make quite a few lasagnas and stuffed shells but one pasta dish I haven't really made too often is Manicotti. Perhaps it was the thought of having to boil the shells in water and then awkwardly filling them with a [makeshift] piping bag. But after reading up on various approaches to Manicotti, I learned it doesn't have to be so awkward. Manicotti can be easy with a couple tricks!
One trick is to do what I've done with the recipe below. I used the dry manicotti shells, boiled them and allowed them to cool. Instead of fumbling with trying to fill the shell through the open ends, I just cut the shells open, added the filling down one side and rolled it up into a tube. It's a perfectly filled shell every time. Alternately, you could use no-boil lasagna pasta sheets. You'll need to allow the pasta sheets to soak in hot water in order to have them pliable to work with. Once they're pliable and cool enough to work with, add the filling down one side and roll it up into a tube. I prefer using the shells since resulted in a perfect pasta/filling ratio whereas using the lasagna pasta sheets tends to result in more pasta than filling. But try either out for yourself and see what you prefer!
Italian Sausage & Spinach Manicotti
recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated
Meaty Tomato Sauce:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound Italian sausage, hot or sweet, casings removed
1/2 pound ground beef
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
1 cup finely chopped carrots
2 (28oz) cans crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning
salt to taste
Spinach & Cheese Filling:
10 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeeze dried
3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 large eggs, beaten
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
14 dry manicotti shells
1 cup grated parmesan cheese for topping
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Set a large pot of water over high heat to come to a boil for the manicotti shells. Once boiling, place the manicotti shells into the water and allow it to cook for 10-12 minutes, al dente. Remove from water and allow to cool on a baking sheet in a single layer.
For the Sauce: Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat and crumble the italian sausage and ground beef. into the pot. Stir and cook until no longer pink, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, onions and carrots to the meat and cook until fragrant but not brown, 3-4 minutes. Stir in crushed tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. Stir in basil and parsley; adjust seasoning with salt.
For the spinach & cheese filling: Combine spinach, ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan, mozzarella, eggs, salt, pepper, and herbs in medium bowl; set aside.
Prepare a 9x13 baking dish by spreading the bottom evenly with 1 1/2 cups of sauce.
Take the cooled manicotti shells and carefully cut a slit across each one to open up. Place 1-2 tablespoons evenly down one side of each open manicotti shell and roll into a tube shape to enclose. Place seam side down in the prepared baking dish. Once you've filled the baking dish with the filled manicotti shells, top evenly with the meaty tomato sauce to cover completely.
Cover the manicotti with aluminum foil and bake until bubbling, about 40 minutes, then remove foil. Remove baking dish, adjust oven rack to uppermost position (about 6 inches from heating element), and heat broiler. Sprinkle manicotti evenly with remaining 1 cup Parmesan. Broil until cheese is spotty brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Cool 15 minutes, then serve. Additional freshly grated parmesan can be added to garnish if desired.