Sunday, February 8, 2009

Room for Improvement: Spinach and Ricotta-Stuffed Manicotti

I think that everyone has those experiences of culinary euphoria when you love everything about the dish you’ve just made, and also those experiences of culinary dismay when the dish you’re making becomes a total disaster and ends up in the garbage. But there are also those times when what you’ve made is not a disaster by any means, but it’s also not all that great. It’s just kind of … meh. In other words, ordinary, boring, or bland.

That’s the kind of experience I had this weekend when I decided to make manicotti, an Italian dish that should, by no means, be bland or boring. My Mom has made it for my family many times, and it has always been a favorite of mine. There are different ways to prepare manicotti (large, tubular pasta that you serve stuffed with meat or cheese), but my favorite has always been one of the most basic. Picture this: ricotta-stuffed manicotti baked in a tomato sauce and topped with mozzarella cheese. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Well, it was this mouthwatering image that prompted me to snatch the box of manicotti pasta from the shelf at the grocery store and add it to my cart. I had ricotta in the fridge at home—dinner was looking very good.

So, this was my process: I sautéed some sliced mushrooms in olive oil with garlic and crushed red pepper flakes:Then, I made a sauce with them by adding some tomato sauce, chicken broth, fresh basil, oregano, salt, and sugar. I simmered the sauce for about half an hour:
I will tell you, the sauce was good. There was definitely no problem there—I tasted it throughout the cooking process and I was satisfied with it. The sauce was probably the element on the plate with the best flavor.

For the filling, I combined ricotta cheese with chopped spinach and an egg:
The assembly is pretty straight-forward. A little sauce around the bottom of your baking dish:
With a little help from Andrew, I stuffed the cooked manicotti with the ricotta mixture.
We stuffed them quite full, but not bursting. Then, the manicotti were placed in the baking dish:
… covered with the rest of the sauce:
… and then topped with a sprinkling of grated mozzerella:
So, after baking covered at 350 F for thirty minutes, then uncovered for another ten, I served up plates of this:
Now, like I said, it wasn’t exactly a bad meal. It just wasn’t that great. The sauce was good, but I think where the dish really fell short was in the filling. The ricotta and spinach mixture really tasted bland, and the blandness kind of muted the good flavors of the sauce. It was definitely lacking some seasoning, so I think that next time, I’ll add some Parmesan and some salt and pepper. Or maybe you have some better ideas? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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