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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Sharing Dinner

I wish you could have joined us for dinner last night. A creamy blend of three cheeses and fresh picked parsley wrapped in paper-thin crepes beneath a layer of homemade sauce…manicotti as it's meant to be enjoyed. I satisfied eleven eleven list item #5—recreate my favorite dinner for my family—with a humble attempt at manicotti in the tradition of The Little Venice.

Throughout my childhood, I looked forward to the times when the sluggish pace of a rural Saturday—monitoring motor vehicle sightings past the property, blowing a pickle-shaped Burger King piccolo to summon the neighbor boy, that sort of thing—was broken by my grandfather’s voice from the Ham radio on the kitchen counter, announcing that we were going out for dinner.

He’d pull up in front of the house with my grandmother in his Lincoln Town car, and we’d all get in—my parents, my sister and I—for the half hour ride to Binghamton. I never liked any of my grandfather’s Town cars—the ride was too smooth—but I loved the 8-tracks he’d play: John Denver, Kenny Price, and Loudon Wainwright III’s big hit, Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.

At the restaurant, there was never any question that the food was authentic, top-notch, and plentiful. I don’t remember everything I used to order, but I know I must have had my fair share of manicotti, because no rendition of the dish has ever sufficed since. Whenever I see it on the menu at an Italian restaurant, I always ask if they make their own crepes, or use pre-fabbed tubes. It’s invariably the tubes, and it’s a shame. The extra effort for the crepes isn’t just a nice touch—I won’t even bother ordering the dish sans crepes.

The really exciting thing is that I had the opportunity to revisit Little Venice in adulthood several years back—and I can report with complete certainty that the manicotti is every bit as good as I remember it as a kid. Well worth the trip to Binghamton if you live in North America.

Recognizing that real life prevents most of us from making the pilgrimage to the land flowing with marinara sauce and manicotti, I offer the following recipe, adapted from our friends at Taste of Home magazine:

Crepes:

1 ½ cups flour
1 cup milk
3 eggs
½ t. salt

Filling:
2 lbs Ricotta Cheese
½ cup Romano
½ cup Parmesan (not the stuff in the green shaker can!)
1 egg
1-2 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley (dried will do in a pinch)
(make ahead and chill in fridge for best results)

Sauce:
I use my home made sauce that involves crushing Italian tomatoes in a food mill and adding fresh herbs (basil, oregano, etc.), a pinch of brown sugar, salt, pepper and garlic to taste. Feel free to experiment, improvise, what have you, but please don’t resort to jarred sauce. You’ve come this far—don’t skimp here.

Mix crepe ingredients in a bowl. Spoon about two tablespoons into a hot skillet. Use spoon to spread into a paper thin 5 inch circle. Do not flip or brown. Set aside on paper plate, and continue making crepes until batter runs out.

Spread sauce on bottom of 13x9 and other various pans you may need to deploy. Spoon cheese mixture into crepes and place, seam down in pan. Top with more sauce and grated cheeses. Cover with foil and bake at 350 for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 minutes more or until heated through and bubbling.

Oh, and one more thing…this recipe lends itself nicely to a sweet ending I remember fondly—a tall, thin, cr√®me de menthe parfait.

If you don’t have time to cook, feel free to stop by for leftovers. We have plenty, and they’re even better the next day.

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