Baked Manicotti with Meat Sauce

Even though there’s still technically another month of summer left, I am already mourning its end. The once gorgeous summer produce is starting to look questionable at the store. If I’m up early or outside in the evening, I can feel the crisp fall air starting to creep in. The days are getting shorter too. Have I told you guys my least favorite part of fall/winter? No, it’s not the snow (I kind of like it actually); it’s the long, dark nights. Sunsets at 4 pm have always made me feel sort of depressed, like there’s just no way that could be all the light we get for the day. I know, if you live somewhere that’s seen a record number of 100+ degree days (like my friend Di, who’s in Texas) you probably think fall can’t get here fast enough, but me, I wouldn’t mind another 3 months of summer. Am I alone??

Baked Manicotti with Meat Sauce

If I try to look on the bright side, the arrival of fall means I’ll probably start cooking again. Despite the summer heat, I still bake most days, so I rarely want to turn on the oven to cook at night too. That means a huge majority of our meals have been grilled this summer. I’ve flagged a ton of recipes to try this fall when I’m back to cooking more often, and this was one of them. Shane and I were both so eager to try this manicotti we simply couldn’t wait. Comfort food is one of my favorite things about fall and winter, and this manicotti is nothing if not comforting. Cheesy, meaty filling stuffed inside of pasta noodles and topped with a rich, meaty sauce and more cheese! If you scan the ingredient list you’ll notice there’s pepperoni in the meat sauce, which I thought was really interesting. It’s used to add some spice and more flavor to the sauce, and we thought it did the trick. Though the recipe is a bit of work, it’ll probably feed your family for a few days (we had it for dinner 2 nights as well as lunch one day) and reheats really well, so I think it’s worth it.

Baked Manicotti with Meat Sauce
from Cook’s Country (also see on Cookies with Boys)

Meat Sauce**
1 yellow onion, chopped
6 oz sliced pepperoni
1 lb 85% lean ground beef
1 tablespoon tomato paste
5 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 (28-oz) cans crushed tomatoes

3 cups ricotta cheese
2 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded provolone cheese (I used all mozzarella)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
16 no-boil lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 375 F with a rack in the top third of the oven.

Combine the onion and pepperoni in the bowl of your food processor and pulse a few times until the mixture is coarsely ground (it shouldn’t be mushy). Add the ground beef and pulse a few more times until the mixture is well combined.

Set a large saucepan over medium heat and add the beef mixture. Brown the meat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Use a slotted spoon to transfer 1 cup of the meat mixture to a paper towel-lined plate and reserve. Add the tomato paste, garlic and red pepper flakes to the pan and cook for about 1 minute, just until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Let the sauce simmer until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

While the sauce is simmering, add 2 quarts of boiling water to a 13×9 baking dish. Drop the noodles in the water and soak until pliable, about 5 minutes. Remove to a kitchen towel to let dry. (Pour the water out of the baking dish so you can use it for assembling the manicotti.) In a large bowl, stir together the ricotta, 2 cups of the mozzarella, 1 cup of the provolone, the egg, salt, pepper, basil and reserved meat mixture.

Spread 1/3 of the meat sauce over the bottom of your 13×9 baking dish. Working with one noodle at a time, lay it flat on your work surface and add a heaping 1/4 cup of the cheese mixture to one end. Spread in a cylindrical shape, then roll the noodle tightly around the filling. Place, seam-side down, in the baking dish. Repeat with all noodles – you should have enough of the cheese mixture to fill all 16. Top the manicotti with another 1/3 of the sauce then cover the pan with foil and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling around the edges of the pan. Remove the foil and top with the remaining mozzarella and provolone cheese. Bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until the cheese has melted. Let the manicotti cool for 15 minutes before serving.

**The meat sauce can be made up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated. I only used 2/3 of it for the manicotti (which is reflected in the instructions above) but the original recipe did call for using all of it. It just seemed like overkill to me.

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