Sunday, November 9, 2014

Quash the Squash - Fall Harvest Manicotti with Sage Cream Sauce

I blame Starbucks.

While it may be true that I consider the Cadbury Egg to represent the first sign of spring (instead of the crocus, which is what my second grade teacher taught me back at P.S. 119), I've never thought of the Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte as the first sign of fall.  Apparently I am out of step with the rest of the world.  If Facebook postings were any indication, people have been eagerly anticipating the availability of the pumpkin spice latte with far more enthusiasm than I show at the reissue of my annual Wawa favorite, the turkey bowl (slices of turkey in gravy over half mashed potatoes and half stuffing, topped with cranberry sauce.  Now that's a great lunch!)

This year, the pumpkin craze has slopped over into all aspects of human nutrition, and I say it is time to quash the squash.  Okay, I admit that I did taste a little of the pumpkin spice coffee at Wawa, and it was just okay (better when I followed an employee's suggestion and mixed it half and half with the French vanilla), and that Paula Deen's recipe for gooey butter bars is even better with pumpkin added,   but it seems to me that enough is enough, and it is time to move on to some other type of vegetable worship.  I would suggest the rutabaga, but I don't see Starbucks picking up on that at all.

All kidding aside, for someone who never even tasted pumpkin until I was a freshman in college, I do love it, in both its sweet and savory permutations.

Fall Harvest Manicotti with Sage Cream Sauce

2 packages (8 ounces each) manicotti shells (you will use 20 of the shells)

1/2 pound mild pan sausage
1 large or 2 average green onions, white and green parts sliced
5 - 6 fresh sage leaves, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise (about 2 tablespoons)
granulated garlic
crushed red pepper (optional)

  • 1 container (15 ounces) whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 can (15 ounces) pure pumpkin puree
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten

4 cups thin sage cream sauce for cooking the shells (recipe follows)
4 cups medium sage cream sauce for serving
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

In a large skillet break up the sausage as it browns.  After some of the fat has been rendered, add the green onion, the sage, garlic, and crushed red pepper.  Continue cooking a few more minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool while you prepare the cheese and pumpkin filling.

  • In a large bowl, mix ricotta cheese, pumpkin, 1 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, the Pecorino Romano, pepper, parsley, nutmeg and eggs.  With a slotted spoon, move the cooled sausage to the bowl, and stir it into the cheese and pumpkin mixture.  Taste and season.  You will probably not need any salt, as both the Romano cheese and the sausage bring a lot of salt to the recipe.  Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator for a few hours, or overnight.  Don't skip this step, it really does make a difference in the intensity of the flavors.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and now comes the really neat part of the recipe.  You will not be cooking the manicotti shells before filling them.  If you are like me, you hated have to boil manicotti and jumbo pasta shells, because whenever I boil them first, they break apart, plus those floppy, slippery shells are difficult to fill.

  • Fill 20 uncooked manicotti shells with the cheese-pumpkin-sausage mixture. The easiest way to do this is to put about a third of the mixture in a one-gallon plastic storage bag, press the mixture toward one corner and snip that corner with scissors. Use this to pipe the mixture into each end of the manicotti tube so that the filling meets in the middle.  Do not overfill.  Repeat with the remaining mixture.  If you have leftover filling, set it aside.

  • Spread a little of the sauce on the bottom of  two  9 x 13 baking dishes, then place the filled manicotti in the dishes.  Pour the remaining sauce over all, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil, and with two spoons, carefully turn each manicotti over.  Put the foil back on and place back in the oven for another 15 minutes, until the manicotti is tender. 


  • Now you can see that the manicotti shells actually cooked in the sauce, so there is very little sauce left.  All the delicious flavor from the sauce has permeated the pasta.   When the shells are almost done, prepare the medium sage cream sauce and keep warm.  Remove the cooked manicotti from the oven and pour half the medium cream sauce over each dish.  Sprinkle a cup of mozzarella cheese on top of each dish, and return to the oven to bake just a few minutes until the cheese is melted.  This will feed a lot of people.

Thin Sage Cream Sauce

4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon rubbed sage
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 cups half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons brown sugar
salt and ground black pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Mix the rosemary, thyme, sage and flour into the butter mixture; cook and stir until smooth, and bubbling, and there is no lingering "raw" flour smell, maybe 2-3 minutes.

Stir the half-and-half into the flour mixture a little at a time, allowing each addition to incorporate fully before adding more. Stir in the nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, salt, and pepper and cook and stir until smooth.

This is going to give you a thin sauce, based on the proportion of 1 tablespoon each butter and flour to 1 cup of half-and-half, just right for cooking the stuffed shells without having to boil the pasta first.

Medium Sage Cream Sauce:  prepare exactly the same as for the thin sauce, except increase the butter and the flour to 8 tablespoons each, or in simpler terms, 1 stick of butter and 1/2 cup flour.

 What to do with the leftover filling?  Use it to fill as many of the remaining 8 shells as you can, and use a jar of Barilla marinara sauce.  Add a little water, which will help to cook the shells while baking.  Cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake till shells are tender. Do the cheese thing, and put back into the oven another 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted.  I have to tell you, these manicotti are delicious with either sauce. 

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