Funny that as long as I have been cooking, certain dishes continue to elude me. Most often they are the most basic dishes, like meat loaf or ribs. I’ve tried countless recipes and techniques but can’t quite nail it. Lasagna is also a dish I was never 100% satisfied with. Too watery, too dry, pasta not quite right, too heavy, and so on and so forth. Like Goldilocks searching for the perfect porridge or chair.
Then this past weekend, while flipping through some back issues of Cooks Illustrated, I came across a technique for making streamlined manicotti. No tedious filling of pasta shells, just spread the cheesy filling over no-boil lasagna sheets, roll up and bake. I had great confidence, being from Cooks Illustrated, the recipe would be fantastic, which it was. What I didn’t expect was to realize that this was the perfect lasagna I’ve been searching for!
Just in a slightly different form.
The pasta is melt-in-your-mouth tender, the cheese filling light and airy and the fresh tomato sauce takes just 15 minutes to make but is bright and fresh. As with all recipes, I made several modifications and proclaimed the dish “blog worthy.” So browse through some of the photos, if you wish, or dive straight into the recipe and all it’s cheesy, tomato goodness!
You don’t need many ingredients or time to make a delicious tomato sauce. I upped the amount of garlic from the original recipe and also gave the sauce a shot of tomato paste at the end to thicken it a bit. Isn’t it beautiful?
The filling contains all the traditional ingredients you’d expect in a cheese filling, along with fresh herbs.
And assembly could not be easier. Just soften the no-boil noodles in a little boiling water, spread some filling on each one, combine with the tomato sauce and bake.
Cheesy Manicotti Roll-Ups *
2 (28-ounce) cans petit cut tomatoes, with their juice
2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
2 TBS minced garlic
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 TBS tomato paste (optional)
2 TBS chopped fresh basil leaves
Cheese Filling & Pasta
3 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
2 cups grated Parmesan/Romano blend cheese
2 1/2 cups freshly shredded mozzarella cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 TBS chopped fresh parsley
2 TBS chopped fresh basil
16 no-boil noodles (prefer Barilla® brand)
Preheat oven to 375°
Heat oil, garlic and pepper flakes in a large saucepan over medium heat until fragrant, but not browned (1-2 minutes). Stir in tomatoes and about 3/4 tsp salt and simmer until thickened slightly, about 15 minutes. If you want a slightly thicker sauce, stir in tomato paste. Sauce can be left chunky or, if you prefer a smoother tomato sauce, puree a bit using an immersion blender. Stir in fresh basil, adjust seasonings, and set aside.
For the cheese filling, combine ricotta, 1 cup Parmesan/Romano cheese, 2 cups of the mozzarella, eggs, salt, pepper and herbs in a large bowl. Adjust seasonings.
To assemble, pour 1-inch boiling water in a 13×9-inch broilersafe baking dish. Add noodles, one at a time, completely submerging them. Let noodles soak until pliable, separating then with tip of sharp knife to prevent sticking. Remove noodles from water and place in single layer on clean kitchen towels. Discard water from dish and wipe dry.
Spread bottom of baking dish with 1 1/2 cups of the sauce. Using a large spoon, spread a heaping 1/4 cup of the filling evenly onto bottom three-quarters of each noodle, leaving top quarter exposed. Roll into tube shape and arrange in baking dish seam side down. Repeat with remaining noodles and filling. Top pasta evenly with remaining tomato sauce, making sure pasta is completely covered. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of mozzarella over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for bubbling, about 40 minutes.
Remove baking dish and adjust oven rack to 6 inches away from broiling element. Heat broiler. Sprinkle manicotti evenly with remaining 1 cup Parmesan/Romano cheese blend. Broil until cheese just begins to brown, about 4 minutes.
Let stand 15 minutes before serving.
*Recipe adapted from Cooks Illustrated