Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mo's Manicotti: Quick! Hide the Vegetables!

Whenever I can find a way to increase the vegetable intake in my diet, I do it. You'll find me tucking all manner of veggies into various dishes in all sorts of ways. It's sneaky, and it works! My husband inevitably devours the vegetable goodness long before I reveal just how veggie-packed his meal was. The secret is in the packaging. This recipe masquerades as a pasta dish, potentially oozing with cheese and calories. Not so. The pasta shells simply hold together a virtual garden of delights, with only a dab of fat-free ricotta cheese to lend it some creaminess. And the sauce is a scrumptious departure from a traditional manicotti marinara: it's made with fire-roasted red bell peppers, which kicks up the flavor quotient considerably - and the bright orange color can't be beat.

Mo's Manicotti
  • 1/2 package +/- manicotti shells (this recipe makes approximately 7-9 shells)
  • 1/4 cup(+/-) olive oil
  • 1 cup onion, diced fine
  • 2 cups button or crimini mushrooms, chopped
  • 2 cups zucchini squash, diced fine
  • 2 cups fire-roasted eggplant, diced fine (I had some grilled eggplant leftover from the day before - but found that the grilling makes for a much better flavor! It's worth the extra step.)
  • 1 pound frozen spinach, thawed and well-drained
  • 1/2 cup ricotta
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 1/2 cup mozzerrella cheese, shredded
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1-2 cups skim milk, room temperature
  • 1 12-ounce jar or can of fire-roasted red bell peppers, juice included (equivalent to 4+ peppers if you roast them yourself)
  • 1 15-ounce can of tomato sauce
  • Kosher salt, to taste
Prepare manicotti shells according to package directions. Drain and set aside to cool. In a large pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, mushrooms, zucchini and eggplant; saute until onions are clear and other ingredients are soft. Drain excess liquid and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add the spinach, ricotta and fresh herbs to the bowl; combine well. As you are mixing the filling ingredients, salt to taste. Stuff each manicotti shell with the filling mixture (there is no pretty way to do this - just use your hands and get dirty!). Set stuffed shells aside.

To prepare the sauce, start by combining roasted red peppers and tomato sauce in a blender. Puree until smooth; set aside. On the stovetop, make a basic roux: melt the butter over low heat in a suacepan; when melted and foamy, add the flour and whisk to combine. Slowly add the milk and continue whisking to create a creamy white sauce. When the white sauce is at the desired consistency, add the pureed pepper/tomato sauce; stir to combine.

Pour enough sauce to cover the bottom of a 9x12 casserole dish. Place the stuffed manicotti shells in the dish side by side. Pour the remainder of the sauce over the top, covering the shells thoroughly. Sprinkle with shredded mozzerrella, if desired. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20-30 minnutes, or until sauce is bubbly and the cheese has melted (don't overcook, or the pasta shells can get dried out).

Variation: Add chopped Italian-style chicken sausage to the filling mixture to add some protein.

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