Mrs. DiLorenzo's manicotti is simple, but it is tradition at its very best. Mom still uses the same recipe, written in Mrs. DiLorenzo's loopy hand on the back of a paper printed with "Lawrence Savings & Trust Company, New Castle." What makes these manicotti truly special are the homemade "crêpes" that are used to contain the ricotta filling. They are so much lighter and tastier than ready-made pasta. The crêpes must be made in the same six-inch cast iron skillet that Mom has been using for decades, black as night and perfectly seasoned. The batter must be dropped into the pan with the same quarter-cup plastic measure. Mom, Sister and I pass around this cookware like they're the only six-inch cast iron skillet and small plastic coffee scoop ever manufactured in the history of man. Mom made the hand-off this morning: "The pan is in the car. The scoop, too," she whispers, like she's making a clandestine drop of contraband material. "OK," I say. "Did you get the two pounds of ricotta?"
In a beautiful moment of serendipity -- right after this morning's manicotti pan exchange -- I happened to be reading the January issue of "Gourmet." I came across a few sentences that speak perfectly to my endearing attraction to Italian-American cooking. In the editor's column, Ruth Reichl writes: "Italian-American cooks seem to understand a human being's basic needs, and their food is instantly seductive. This cooking honors tradition, requires commitment and offers pure comfort with each bite. It is not particularly complicated, but it is so nakedly honest that you can instantly tell when it has been cooked with passion and care and when it has not."
I doubt Mrs. DiLorenzo would have articulated it that way. I surmise that she did not over-think her food, she just made meals that made her (and her laborer husband and young neighbors) happy. Her manicotti was cooked with passion, so much so that generations of people not even related to her pass around that old scrap of paper, pan and measuring scoop in hopes of recreating a little bit of what was tasty and comforting about Manor Ave. I wasn't even there, yet I still seek that comfort. Talk about understanding a human being's basic needs.
MRS. DILORENZO'S MANICOTTI
and a bonus recipe:
AN ALTERNATE TAKE ON MY ROASTED TOMATO MARINARA
When I posted the recipe for my roasted tomato marinara last September, I shared with you how I make red sauce when tomatoes are in season, fresh, plentiful and delicious. Tomatoes in March (or January, or February, or any number of frigid winter months) are not so fresh, plentiful and delicious, at least in this part of the world. So when the mercury drops, my marinara adapts: instead of roasting fresh tomatoes, I make it with either my own canned tomatoes, grown and put up late last summer, or with tins of high-quality whole tomatoes. No roasting necessary. I've been meaning to share this adaptation for awhile, and today seems to be the day, as it is a magnificent complement to Mrs. DiLorenzo's manicotti.
(Note that "Mrs. DiLorenzo's manicotti" is never, ever, referred to as "manicotti.")
1/4 c. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 c. fresh (or 2 T. dried) basil
2 T. fresh (or 1 T. dried) rosemary
1/4 c. fresh (or 2 T. dried) flat-leaf parsley
2 T. fresh (or 1 T. dried) oregano
2 28-oz. cans of whole peeled tomatoes, San Marzano if you can get them
1/3 c. red wine
1/3 c. pecorino cheese, grated
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions begin to soften and brown slightly around the edges. Add the salt and pepper and cook for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While the onions are cooking, combine the basil, rosemary, parsley and oregano. If using fresh chop the herbs together. Divide the herb mixture in half.
Add the tomatoes, wine and half the herb mixture to the onions. Stir and bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce until it's smooth. (You can also use a regular blender for this step, but the immersion blender is much easier and cleaner.) Stir in the pecorino cheese and simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining half of the herbs, and the sauce is ready to use.
MRS. DILORENZO'S MANICOTTI
There are three main components to Mrs. DiLorenzo's manicotti: the crêpe-like manicotti "shells," the filling and the red sauce.
The batter for the manicotti crêpes:
4 large eggs
3 T. olive oil
Pinch kosher salt
1 c. water
1 c. whole milk
2 c. all-purpose flour
Vegetable shortening, for greasing the pan
2 lbs. ricotta cheese
4 T. butter, melted and cooled slightly
3 large eggs
1/3 c. pecorino cheese, grated
1/4 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. freshly-grated nutmeg
Approximately one batch of marinara (recipe above), about 6 c. of sauce
Pecorino cheese, grated, for garnishing and serving
First, make the marinara. You can substitute your favorite marinara if you so desire.
Then, make the manicotti crêpes. In a medium bowl, beat together the eggs, oil and salt with a hand-held mixer. Combine the water and milk in a liquid measuring cup. Alternate adding the milk mixture and the flour to the eggs, beginning and ending with the milk mixture. Mix until well-combined.
Heat a 6-inch skillet over medium heat until it's hot. Using a paper towel, coat the pan with a small amount of vegetable shortening. Using a scant quarter-cup measure, drop the batter into the pan, swirling the pan to coat the bottom with the batter. The pan should be hot enough that the batter sizzles when dropped into the pan. Cook for about 15 seconds, then flip using your fingers and a fork (Mom's method) or rubber scraper (mine). Cook for just a few seconds on the other side, then remove to a cutting board. They should be mostly pale and just barely brown around the edges.
Place the finished manicotti crêpes in a single layer on the cutting board until they are cool, then feel free to stack them. Every fourth or fifth crêpe, go ahead and grease the pan with a little more shortening. And don't fret if the first one doesn't work. It rarely does. It takes time to get the pan up to the right temperature.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Make the filling. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, butter, eggs, pecorino, parsley, salt and nutmeg. (I should state for the record: Mrs. DiLorenzo did not put nutmeg in her manicotti, but instead added a dash of sugar. Mom and I decided to break with Mrs. DiLorenzo's tradition here.) Mix the filling with a wooden spoon until well combined.
Place a few ladles of marinara sauce in 2 13" x 9" baking dishes. Assemble the manicotti. Place about 2 T. of filling in each crêpe. Roll up and place on top of the marinara, seam-side down. Repeat until all shells and filling are gone. You might have to use a third, smaller, baking dish depending on how large you make your manicotti. Mom is famous for making them quite full, "like battleships," so we often run over to a third pan. We did tonight.
Top the manicotti with a few additional ladles of marinara, spreading it out to cover the manicotti evenly. Sprinkle with a few tablespoons of pecorino, then cover with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes. Don't over bake, or the manicotti will dry out. Let rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
Please note: the manicotti can be assembled and refrigerated for a day or two before baking. Of the three dishes that we made tonight, we baked two to take to Nephew's 7th birthday party and put the third in the refrigerator to bake and enjoy tomorrow.
Makes about 30 manicotti, which will feed 8-10 people depending on the level of ravenousness.