Growing up, when it came to special occasion and weekend dinners, my sister and I would take turns choosing the entree.
My sister’s favorite was always grilled steak. My dad would mix the meat with some sliced onions, and slather it all with a bunch of mustard. After some time at the grill, he would cut the slice into 1-inch slices, letting the lip of the cutting board catch the juices. My mom and sister would race to be the first to the reddest pieces, while I’d opt for the less-rare slices from the edge of the steak. I didn’t care so much about the meat itself; for me, it was just a vehicle to get more grilled onions to my mouth. Even though I didn’t usually like mustard, I loved the tang it added to the sweet and tender onions, turned bright yellow from the condiment.
But when it was my turn to pick our special dinner, I usually chose manicotti. It was almost like inside-out spaghetti and meatballs, but better. The beef and spinach filling was kept separate from the tomato sauce and ricotta by the pasta shells. Until, that is, you cut into it and took a bite, and all the flavors finally came together. To this day, I still request manicotti when I go to my parents’ house in Minnesota.
When I made the manicotti, I used frozen tomato sauce from the summer and defrosted it. It was a little too watery, and didn't stick well to the manicotti. If you choose to use canned or fresh tomato sauce, you'll be fine. But if you use frozen, simmer it for a bit longer to cook off more of the water.
This recipe makes a lot of manicotti, but lucky for you, it reheats beautifully. In fact, sometimes I think I like it better reheated than fresh!
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 14.4 ounce bag of frozen spinach, defrosted and drained
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 5 tablespoons grated Romano cheese
- 3 large eggs
- 1 box manicotti shells
- 1 1/4 cup tomato sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 1/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350F and grease a 9x13" baking pan.
- Cook the ground beef in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Stir it constantly with a wooden spoon, breaking up the larger clumps, until it is mostly cooked through. It should take 7-10 minutes.
- Add the onion and cook for another 5 minutes or so, just until the onions are soft and translucent.
- Transfer the beef and the onions to a large mixing bowl. Stir in the spinach, breadcrumbs and 2 tablespoons of the Romano cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Whisk the eggs together in a small bowl, just enough to break up the yolks. Stir the eggs into the beef until they are distributed throughout the filling mixture. Set the filling aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta as instructed on the package and drain.
- While the filling cools and the pasta cooks, bring the tomato sauce to a simmer. Whisk in the sugar, oregano and thyme. Simmer for 3-5 minutes to thicken a bit, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Whisk the ricotta with the rest of the Romano cheese.
- One at a time, fill the manicotti shells with the beef filling. I've found it easiest to do this with my hands, because the spoon tears the pasta more easily.
- Line the filled pasta up in the greased 9x13" baking pan. When all the pasta is filled, pour the tomato sauce over the manicotti. Spread the ricotta over the tomato sauce.
- Bake the manicotti, uncovered, at 350F for 35 minutes. Allow to cool for 5 minutes or so before serving.
Make Ahead and Storage
To save yourself some time, you can cook the beef filling and the tomato sauce the evening before. Cover and refrigerate them separately until you're ready to make the manicotti.