I have a very dear friend who we’ll call “Lolly.” (That’s what my boys call her, Aunt Lolly.) We’ve been friends since the first grade. I will NOT calculate how many years that has been. She is beautiful and smart and her family is super duper fun. And, for some reason, she’s also single. Do not ask me to explain that…I haven’t the foggiest.
Every once in a while I get a phone call from her asking for a date menu…you know, she’s got some new guy coming over and she’s going to cook dinner. Something she doesn’t really do all that often…which I can totally understand. I mean, if I were single, I would likely subsist on microwave popcorn and the occasional avocado. Anyway, I LOVE these little cooking lessons because she comes to my house with bottles of wine and we sit in my kitchen and walk through a recipe…and catch up…and then we eat it. If it passes the taste test, then she’s all set to fly solo.
I try to keep the recipes fairly simple and, of course, date-worthy. Also, when possible, I prefer recipes that allow her to do most, if not all, of the work ahead of time. She was here last week and we made manicotti.
This recipe is a great way to use left-over chicken…or pre-cooked/pre-grilled chicken that you make ahead to use for the whole week (great time saver.)
You mix the chopped chicken with the other filling ingredients: cream cheese, spinach, mozzarella, breadcrumbs.
Now here’s why this is such a great single girl or building-your-repertoire recipe: you can make this as simple or as complicated as you want. So, as your cooking skills grow, this recipe can grow with you. Example: the original recipe calls for chive and onion cream cheese…which is tasty and simple. However, I happened to have a garden full of basil and a crisper full of tender spring onions…so, I made my own flavored cream cheese and changed it up a little bit. The possibilities for variation are endless.
Once your filling is complete, you start stuffing the pasta. Again, you could use shells for this and spoon it in. You could use lasagna noodles and cut them to size and make rolls with them. You could use manicotti and squeeze it in with a pastry bag or open it up and spoon it on like pictured.
One thing I was curious about was the difference between cannelloni and manicotti…since I hear them used interchangeably. I found a variety of answers, some conflicting. Some say it is about the sauce: manicotti gets a red sauce and cannelloni gets a white or bechamel sauce. Others said it was about the pasta itself: manicotti is a tube-shaped pasta and cannelloni is more like a crepe or fresh handmade pasta that gets stuffed/rolled. (There was the most disagreement about this component.) The most widely accepted distinction was the stuffing: manicotti gets cheese (namely ricotta) with herbs and possibly spinach while cannelloni are stuffed with meat and other goodies.
So….I suppose since these have chicken in them, technically, I should be calling them cannelloni? Although the box of pasta I purchased to make them said manicotti. Call them what you want. I call them yummy.
There’s about 1/2 cup of filling in each roll. And, as you can see, it’s really important they are laid out neat and perfect in the dish. No, it totally doesn’t matter because they are going to get slathered with a red pepper Alfredo sauce.
Which you won’t get to see.
Lolly and I had each had a glass of wine by that point and we were deep into an important conversation about her most recent date…with someone she met online! I love it!
I couldn’t be bothered to stop and take another photo. So, you’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that the sauce is a beautiful orange color and super simple to whip up in your blender. And is another example of how you can make this recipe more complicated if you want: the sauce is roasted red peppers (which you can buy or roast yourself,) Alfredo sauce (which you can dump out of a jar or make yourself) and Parmesan cheese. Really. Three ingredients. That’s it. But go ahead, spice it up – throw in some herbs or different kinds of cheese…it’s flexible.
So here’s another shot of not-so-neat rows of stuffed pasta to make up for the missing photo of the sauce:
Use whatever kind of pasta you want. Pour on whatever kind of sauce you want. Call it manicotti. Call it cannelloni. Just make it. You don’t even have to be single! (But if you are, it’ll certainly help get you another date…)
Chicken Manicotti with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
1 8-oz. package manicotti shells (or other stuffable pasta)
4 cups finely chopped, cooked chicken
2 8-oz. containers chive and onion cream cheese (or your own!)
1 10-oz. package frozen, chopped spinach – thawed and well drained
1 cup (8 oz) shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
1 tsp pepper
¾ tsp garlic salt
Roasted Red Pepper Sauce (recipe below)
Chopped basil or parsley, for garnish
Grated Parmesan, for garnish
Cook pasta according to package instructions, drain. Stir together chicken, cream cheese, spinach, mozzarella, bread crumbs, pepper and salt – mix well. Cut pasta shells lengthwise through 1 side. Spoon about ½ cup chicken mixture into each shell or rectangle, roll gently pressing the cut sides together. Place, cut side down, in lightly greased baking dish. Pour sauce evenly over shells and bake, covered at 350° for 25-30 minutes or until heated through. Garnish with fresh herbs and grated Parmesan, if desired.
Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
2 7-oz. jars roasted red bell peppers, drained (or your own roasted peppers)
1 16-oz jar creamy Alfredo sauce (or your own Alfredo sauce)
3 oz shredded Parmesan cheese (I like a blend of Parmesan and Asiago)
Process all ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth. Should yield about 3 ½ cups. Note: I always think it looks like too much sauce for one pan of pasta, but it really will soak it up. If you don’t like that much sauce, you can store the excess for 7-10 days in your refrigerator and use it on plenty of other things. This recipe also freezes very well, so if you are in the mood…make one to bake and one to freeze.
And if you know a wonderful man who lives in the Austin area and really digs brunettes and live music and you think he’d like to eat this with Lolly…let me know…I can hook him up!