Do you like Italian food? Do you like food that is kind of like lasagne but not exactly like lasagne?
Do you like making a multi-step meal that involves scratch-made sauce and hand-filled pasta?
Do you like leftovers that last for days and only get better with time? Do you like perfectly delightful combinations of pasta, cheese, spinach, and meat sauce? Do you like noodle tubes filled with magic and topped with awesome?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then this is a recipe for you!
I started making manicotti a couple years ago when I was home for Christmas. My mom, a long-time lasagne maker, decided to mix it up and buy manicotti shells instead for a family dinner. I volunteered to help, and though it was a lengthy process, I genuinely enjoyed stuffing a cheesy, spinach-y goo into the shells. Since then I’ve tinkered with different recipes, and I finally landed on the right balance. Like, a year ago. But it takes a long time to make already, so I hadn’t yet talked myself into taking the time to photograph the process. Not to mention, I keep making it in the winter when I have little evening light for shooting photos, soooooo.
Sorry for the delay!
A warning: if you’re looking for a quick week-night dinner, this is not the right choice. It could be if you decide to use frozen spinach instead of fresh or pre-made pasta sauce. But where’s the fun in that?
I eat rather a lot of pasta. When I started writing this post, I had to go back to see what stories I’ve already told you about my lifelong noodle-y obsession, just to make sure I wasn’t repeating something.
I’ve already mentioned that as a kid, I loved spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese above all other things, and in fact I rarely tolerated the annoying hindrance of spaghetti sauce. It was sloppy, acidic, and mostly just not my thing. I still remember the first time I actually enjoyed a smear of red sauce atop a mound of pasta. Bizarrely, it was on a camping trip. In our open-air kitchen of two camp stoves and a picnic table, Dad carefully cooked a pot of pasta in one pot and in another, he combined a can of basic tomato sauce with a seasoning mix. I don’t know why I opted to try the sauce that time, but I suddenly realized this red sauce thing wasn’t necessarily so bad after all. To this day, however, I’m still pretty picky about my red sauces and rarely order them at a restaurant as a result.
There are a few brands and varieties I’ve discovered at the grocery over the years that I like rather well, but once I began canning my own basic tomato sauce, I felt it was time to finally find the homemade version I was seeking.
Since there are approximately one gazillion recipes for spaghetti sauce out there, each one claiming to be better than the last, it was a bit intimidating to know where to begin. Some swore by the addition of carrots and peppers, others piled on the sugar, and still others demanded the tomatoes be practically raw to achieve pure spaghetti sauce bliss. Fresh herbs, dried herbs, lots of spice, none at all – there really are so many ways to do this. How was I to know what I liked the most?
Last August, I canned 118 pounds of tomatoes. Broke ’em down one-by-one and divvied up them up into whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, plain tomato sauce, pizza sauce, and marinara sauce. And while I certainly do use those the other products, the biggest motivator is the marinara sauce. Which I ration carefully across the year for one dish and one dish only.
Having stumbled across this delightful combination of ingredients by pure accident, I accidentally discovered a meal that Brad and I both find so perfect, so delicious, that I have to work really really hard to make anything else for dinner. Originally hatched as a way to use up the previous year’s supply of home-canned marinara sauce, this dish now holds permanent quarters at the top of our favorites list. I know that “Magic Pasta” doesn’t really indicate the components of the meal particularly well, but it’s all we call it. If you prefer, you can call it Pasta with Amazing Tomato Cream Sauce and Italian Sausage.
This may not come as much of a surprise. But, when I go on vacation, one of my favorite activities is seeking out and buying whatever edible bounty hails from my destination. And I’m not just talking the best local restaurants: if I can swing it, I try to bring back enough to stock my pantry and freezer. From Phoenix, I toted back a bag of the most splendid grapefruits. From Maryland, a trunk full of apples, pumpkins, and cider. From Wisconsin, a backpack full of cheese, accompanied by an ice pack which thankfully was not confiscated at the airport.
And from our recent weekend getaway to the Grand Strand beaches of South Carolina, I brought back a few pounds of fresh-caught shrimp.
Having grown up in a rather land-locked state, I never had many opportunities to enjoy fresh seafood. Shrimp was always something I liked to eat, but I mostly knew it only in its breaded, popcorn form, or cold and pink around the shores of a cocktail sauce reservoir. With this rare opportunity to buy it right from the waters of the Atlantic, I wanted to try a dish I’ve been thinking about ever since I was served something similar at a friend’s after their own return from their beach house in the Outer Banks: a pasta dish studded with shrimp and lightly coated with a buttery, flavorful sauce.
It hardly seems real to me that the summer, which seemingly only just began, is now drawing to a close. What once looked like a vast expanse of time in which to accomplish projects and execute plans that I’ve had on my list for some time now is now behind me, with very few of those items marked off.
I suppose that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? Perhaps there’s a reason those projects are still on the list: they simply don’t take priority when other things come up. Sometimes it’s dinner with friends, sometimes a movie, sometimes it’s work.
This time, it was a MASSIVE harvest of tiny tomatoes that would be heartbreaking to waste.
Up until a couple of years ago, I only ate cherry tomatoes raw, usually in salads or from the veggie tray at parties. And as someone who is not a particularly big fan of raw tomatoes, I typically only ate one or two.
Now that I am growing my own, however, I must find other ways to use them up. I actually dried most of this batch, but I’ve been curious about what a tomato sauce made from these tiny, sweet tomatoes would taste like, so I decided to give it a shot. And while it is certainly more labor-intensive than pulling a jar of Ragu from the pantry, it’s quite a delightful way to make the most of the tomato-harvest of August.
And now, for something thoroughly NOT wedding cake:
After spending the majority of last week baking more cake than many people bake in a lifetime, I’m celebrating this week by not baking anything sweet. No cookies, no cakes, no pies, nothin’. Instead, MEATBALLS.
These particular meatballs are a blend, primarily, of ground beef and ground pork. You can really mix and match any ground meats you like, or you can just use one variety. I’ve made excellent batches using only ground turkey, but beef and pork were in the freezer, so there you are. But contrary to their name, meatballs are not entirely meat. I daresay that every recipe I’ve seen suggests that bread crumbs are just as important as the meat itself.
Let’s actually talk about bread crumbs for a moment. Bread crumbs are incredibly easy to produce (if you have bread, you can make bread crumbs), but they have still managed to find their way onto the shelves of grocery stores in a consistency that often is not so much of crumbs as it is a fine dust. If you have fresh bread, a few minutes in the oven will crisp it enough that you can smash it into crumbs at whatever consistency you fancy. Or, if you have trouble making it through a baguette before it goes stale, as I always seem to do, you can grind that sucker up in the food processor for bread crumbs far more satisfying and probably more economical than the canisters at the store.
I frequently lament that I need another freezer. We have your standard apartment fridge-and-freezer combo, but our freezer is, shall I say, stuffed. Filled to the brim. There are many reasons for this. I have given up on buying chicken breast and now buy the whole dang bird, break it down, and separate the parts into meal-size portions. I capture strawberries at their peak ripeness, freeze them on cookie sheets, then bag them up to use in winter months when the only berries to be found are the imposters at the grocery store. Insanely, I recently made enough soup to open a deli and froze most of it because really, who wants soup in 95° weather?
Oh, and last summer, after foolishly planting seven basil plants that plotted to take over the world, it was all I could do to keep up with it by tossing it in the food processor with some nuts, garlic, parmesan, and a glug or two of olive oil before freezing it in my ice cube trays to make an army of pesto cubes. (Finding actual ice in our freezer is, coincidentally, impossible. Icy beverage lovers, beware.)
And then there are the pizza doughs. I made about twenty of them in the afterglow of my homemade mozzarella cheese experiment this spring with the leftover whey, and may have over-estimated the value of their convenience in relation to my precious freezer real estate.
I look forward to the brief harvest of pea pods from their delicate vines more than any other veggie. My grandparents planted endless rows of peas in their garden not so much because they needed that many for themselves, but because they had two wily granddaughters who spent many summer days amongst the plants, picking and eating peas still warm from the sun.
There are things I daydream about. Sometimes, they are kitchen things.
In these kitchen daydreams, the sauce pan I need is never at the back of the cabinet. All my spice bottles are the same shape, same size, same color, and they’re all labeled in the same font. Sunshine floods across my countertops and splashes to the floor, filling the room with light. My knives are always sharp, but I never cut my fingers. Avocados grow locally. Also cashews and cocoa beans and grapefruits.
Some dreams stay that way. But other dreams? Pasta-and-mushrooms-tossed-in-sun-dried-tomato-cream-sauce dreams? Oh yeah. They’re COMING TRUE.
Remember a week or two ago when I made fresh mozzarella cheese? And I said I was gonna tell you what you could do with the 1/2 gallon + of whey that results from the cheesemaking process?
I’m here to fulfill my promise.The promise of pizza.
It’s a lovely thing when completion of one kitchen project leads inexorably to another. What better way to use a pound of fresh mozzarella than to throw the old pizza stone in the oven, pull out the pizza cutter, and have yourself a pizza feast? And this pizza crust? THIS one uses up the whey from making mozzarella. Some of it. Or if you’re moderately obsessive me, it uses all of the whey.
I’ve used several recipes over the last couple of years for homemade pizza crust. Sometimes thick and fluffy, sometimes thin and crispy, sometimes in that strange place in between. This crust is simple to put together, has a short list of ingredients, and can go from disparate ingredients to rolled-and-ready-for-toppings in less than 30 minutes.