This is comfort food and is surprisingly easy to make. Traditional Italian-style pasta shells are stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese, real Parmesan cheese, and baby spinach and then smothered in a tasty marinara sauce and baked to perfection. Serve with French bread or a fresh baguette and extra marinara sauce for dipping.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (divided)
10 ounces fresh baby spinach
2½ cups Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese (shredded fine – divided)
2 cups fresh whole milk ricotta cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
14 Manicotti pasta shells
2½ cups marinara sauce *
1 cup whole milk Mozzarella (shredded)
½ cup Parmesan cheese (for the table)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a 9×13-inch baking dish by brushing two tablespoons of oil over the bottom. Prepare marinara sauce (see below).
Cook spinach in the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat until wilted. Remove from heat and drain. Chop the spinach. Combine spinach with two cups of the Parmigiana-Reggiano cheese and all of the ricotta in a large mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Cook pasta according to instructions (usually by boiling for eight to 10 minutes). Do not overcook. Drain and stuff pasta with the spinach filling.
Spread ½ cup of the marinara sauce on the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Arrange the manicotti in a single layer making sure the sides don’t touch (you want the sauce to cover the top and the sides). Layer sauce over the top of the manicotti. There will be a little sauce left but not to worry. Save it as a dip for French bread.
Sprinkle mozzarella over the top of the sauce and bake the manicotti, uncovered, until heated through and the sauce bubbles on the sides of the dish – about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven and let stand for five minutes before serving. Bring the remaining ½ cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to the table for garnish.
*Marinara Sauce Ingredients:
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 small onions (chopped fine)
2 garlic cloves (chopped fine)
2 stalks celery chopped fine)
2 carrots (scrubbed clean and chopped fine)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
2 dried bay leaves
*Marinara Sauce Directions:
In a large casserole pot, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and 1/2 teaspoon of each salt and pepper. Sauté until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour. Remove from heat and discard the bay leaf. Season the sauce with more salt if needed. Cover and set aside until ready to use.