Menu Development
Manicotti can add interesting possibilities to menu
By Pasquale “Pat” Bruno, Jr

Manicotti is a tube of macaroni that is stuffed and baked. In a more enlightened fashion, and ignoring the fact that you would have to look long and hard to find the word "manicotti" on a menu in Italy, this is a delicious pasta dish that offers the creative cook a wide range of interesting possibilities.

The name manicotti (mah-nee-KOH-tee) derives from the noun mancia, which translates to sleeve, hose, or pipe. So, it is the shape itself that determined the naming of this dish. In that regard, it is the idea of the pipe shape, the hollow that can be filled, that stirs the creative juices.

In my unyielding stance to advance the knowledge and understanding of Italian dishes, there is this: In the Lombardy region of Italy, there is something called a crespelle. Crespelle are “pancakes” rolled around a filling of chopped meat and slathered with a cheese sauce.

In effect, this variation can justifiably be called manicotti. In fact, you will see recipes that are called manicotti, but there is no pasta used. Instead a crepe (a.k.a. very thin pancake) is used to hold the filling. Once the crepes are made and filled, they are sauced and baked in the same fashion as manicotti made with pasta.

I am not recommending (unless you operate a very high-end Italian restaurant and wish to make a statement) that you get into the idea of using crepes to make manicotti. The process of making crepes can be labor-intensive and difficult. Even though I might favor the idea of manicotti made with crepes (I make them this way on occasion for family and friends), the best route to take is to use packaged pasta shells.

For the record, there is a family resemblance between manicotti and cannelloni. Both use, in one fashion or another, pasta tubes that are 4- to 5-inches long, and they both end up getting stuffed and baked.

Bare Necessities

An interesting aspect of manicotti is the fact that your operation most likely already has all the ingredients necessary to add it to your menu. On the other hand, if you are now serving manicotti, I have a few tips and techniques that you might want to try.

For basic manicotti you will need the pasta tubes, a filling for the pasta tubes, and a sauce. The filling for the pasta would be a combination of cheeses, or a meat filling. The sauce used with classic manicotti can be a basic marinara sauce, spaghetti sauce, or meat sauce.

Before getting into the recipes, here are a few tips and important methods used in the making of great manicotti.

Cook the pasta tubes in boiling water to which you have added salt (2 teaspoons of salt to 4 quarts of water). Add the pasta to the boiling water, stirring gently. Cook the pasta until it comes up just a bit short of being al dente. Keep in mind the pasta will spend additional time in the oven, which means it is better to undercook it than to overcook it. Drain the pasta at once. Now you can lay the tubes out on sheet pans to cool and dry. This is your prep for the pasta, and you can do as many as you will need for anticipated orders that day or the next day. The pasta not used should be covered with plastic wrap and put in the cooler.
Stuff the pasta with the filling — cheese is the traditional filling for manicotti.
The next step relates to how you plan to serve the manicotti. I like to prep individual orders. The way I do this is to spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of an individual serving dish (I use an oval au gratin dish). Now arrange one portion of the filled pasta tubes in the dish. Next, cover the pasta with sauce. Now sprinkle some shredded mozzarella over the sauce.
Now I can hold this until an order comes in. To order, I slip the au gratin dish into the oven to heat it through entirely and to lightly brown the mozzarella. Refresh the top a bit with a sprinkle of grated cheese before sending it to the dining room.
If you have prepped too many orders, no problem: cover each dish with plastic wrap and put them in the cooler for serving the next day. Two days is the maximum shelf life.

Making Manicotti

An ample serving size would be three manicotti; go to four manicotti for a very generous serving.

Stuffings can be prepped ahead and keep covered in the cooler. Shelf life is three days. Manicotti varies in size relative to the manufacturer, so filling yield noted is approximate.

Meat Filling

For a meat filling, I take cooked meatballs (before they go in the sauce) and chop the meat. Then I stuff the meat into the pasta tubes.

Cheese and Prosciutto Filling

Enough to stuff 12 manicotti tubes

2 cups ricotta

2 medium eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 pound prosciutto, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup grated Romano or Parmesan

3 cups shredded mozzarella

3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

In a mixing bowl, beat the ricotta until it is creamy. Add the eggs, prosciutto, grated Romano, mozzarella and parsley. Beat to combine. Can be scaled up in direct proportion.

Cheese and Spinach Filling

Enough to stuff 12 manicotti tubes

2 cups ricotta

1/4 cup grated Parmesan

1/4 cup grated Romano

3 cups shredded mozzarella

2 medium eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup fresh spinach, chopped

In a mixing bowl, beat the ricotta until it is creamy. Fold in the Parmesan, Romano, and mozzarella. Beat in the eggs and the spinach. Can be scaled up in direct proportion.

Use your imagination for other fillings. For example, try spinach and chicken, roasted eggplant with roasted bell peppers, or Italian sausage and other blends of cheeses (Asiago, fontina, provolone).

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