While I love traditional Italian food, I also enjoy creating new variations on standard classics. Recently a dear friend was visiting and mentioned that he was interested in cooking more with liquor and alcohol. A great discussion began and in the back of my mind I began creating this dish as we were talking. Indeed manicotti is a classic dish, but this "Mushroom and Brandy Manicotti" is very different and loaded with flavor, earthy heartiness, bright colors and textures.
This dish is also very good for people who are lactose intolerant or the many people who simply don't like cheese. I personally love many cheeses, but don't believe it has to be part of all Italian-American creations. Sometimes, it's even more interesting to skip the cheese when you make a pasta dish al forno.
A note on the recipe: I always make my own tomato sauce, but did not keep track of the exact measurements for you. Next time, I certainly will write it down. I use fresh roma plum tomatoes that I've blanched and peeled, garlic, onions, extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, fresh oregano and sometimes, a very small pinch of cloves. Other times I'll add a carrot. It's very basic but absolutely delicious when fresh.
1 package dried manicotti, cooked to package directions
3 c. fresh homemade tomato sauce with herbs
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. onion, chopped
4 c. fresh mushrooms such as shiitake, cremini or any others you like, chopped
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1/2 c. shelled hazelnuts, chopped
6 T. brandy
3 T. cream, half and half or plain yogurt (optional)
fresh basil, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Make the tomato sauce by sautéing onions, garlic, tomatoes and spices. Add fresh herbs and remove from heat when tomatoes are fully cooked and broken down.
2. Bring a large pot of water to rolling boil, add salt and when boiling vigorously, gently add the manicotti pasta. Cook to package instructions until al dente, about 6-8 minutes. Drain the manicotti and lay out in a single layer on a flat baking sheet, separating so they don't touch. Allow them to cool.
3. Put a medium skillet on the stove and medium-high flame. Add the olive oil and when hot, put in the garlic and onions,sautéing until the onions are transluscent. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they are a deep golden brown color. Add the thyme, and stir to incorporate. Toss in the hazelnuts and stir another few seconds. Pour in the brandy and stir. Reduce the heat to medium and allow the liquid to cook into the mushrooms and reduce a little. When the brandy is absorbed, add the cream, stir gently and remove from the heat. Allow the mushroom mixture to cool enough to handle.
4. When mushrooms and manicotti are both cool, add about 1 1/2 c. tomato sauce to the bottom of a rectangular baking dish and spread evenly. Pick up one manicotti and use a small teaspoon to stuff the manicotti from both ends with the mushroom mixture. Be gentle, you don't want to tear the pasta. Fill each pasta tube without overstuffing and lay them in a single layer along the bottom of the pan.
5. Drizzle the rest of the tomato sauce over the top of the manicotti, sprinkle with a little fresh chopped basil and cover the dish with aluminum foil. Bake in the center of the oven for 35 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil from the dish and bake another 10 minutes.
6. After about 45 minutes, remove the dish from the oven and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Serve and enjoy immediately.