No precooking is necessary for stuffed manicotti

Easiest Beef and Cheese Manicotti recipe calls for filling raw noodles rather than precooking.
Easiest Beef and Cheese Manicotti recipe calls for filling raw noodles rather than precooking.

Reader Pat H. of Coppell, Texas, and I have been talking about manicotti — specifically, how to stuff it. I posted the question on my Web site and got lots of great ideas — everything from using a zipper-top plastic bag and “squirting” the filling in, to deliberately slicing the manicotti along the top and “sealing” the opening with cheese.

But my favorite answer comes from Ronald P. in Federal Way, Wash.:

“Ladies, this is not brain surgery. I owned and operated an Italian restaurant in Federal Way. I precooked my regular pasta — like spaghetti, rigatoni, and penne — and kept them cold till I served them up for customer orders. However, with a stuffed pasta like manicotti you have to do things differently. Never, never, never precook your manicotti noodles ahead of time.”

Since then, Pat and I have both tried stuffing the uncooked manicotti noodles and are very pleased with the results. Pat reports that pre-stuffing is the easiest method she has yet to find.

Because this method does require the ricotta mixture to be “stiff,” I decided to beef up my traditional cheese manicotti recipe with ground beef. I absolutely love the result, the hearty filling paired with the al dente noodle after baking the raw manicotti noodles in sauce. No, it’s not brain surgery. But I’m sure even brain surgeons like tips and tricks from other pros, so thank you, Ronald!

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Easiest Beef and Cheese Manicotti

Start to finish: 15 minutes prep; 1 hour bake

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 cup onion, chopped

1 pound extra-lean ground beef

Salt and black pepper to taste

1 (15-ounce) container part-skim ricotta

2 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella, divided use

1 cup shredded parmesan, divided use

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 (32-ounce) jar marinara sauce of choice

14 (8-ounce package) manicotti shells

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat a heavy, medium-size skillet over medium. Add olive oil, onion, and ground beef. Season with salt and pepper. Saute until the meat browns and the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, combine the ricotta, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, 1/‚Äč2 cup parmesan, and parsley. Add the garlic, salt, and pepper to taste and mix. Stir the cooled meat into the cheese mixture.

Spoon 1 cup of the marinara sauce over the bottom of a large oblong baking dish. Completely fill the uncooked manicotti with the cheese-meat mixture, using a narrow spoon or your fingers. Arrange the stuffed pasta in a single layer in the prepared dish and spoon the remaining sauce over.

Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and then the remaining parmesan over the stuffed pasta. Cover tightly with foil and bake the manicotti 45 to 50 minutes. Uncover and cook 10 more minutes, or until cheese is golden brown and sauce bubbles along the edge. Let the manicotti stand 5 minutes and serve.

Yield: 7 servings

Approximate values per serving: 456 calories, 22 g fat (10 g saturated), 123 mg cholesterol, 37 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 986 mg sodium