Mother’s Day comes once a year, so there is really no excuse for letting it slip by without any fanfare. For me, Mother’s Day radiates the warmth of the bright spring sunshine, and it smells like the first whiff of fresh flowers from my garden.
This year, instead of going out to brunch or making a special spring shrimp dish for Mother’s Day, I made a more international departure from what I normally cook. A barely used hand-crank pasta maker had been begging to be noticed ever since Santa brought it down the chimney many moons ago.
In my mind, homemade pasta boiled and buttered was a little too boring for a Mother’s Day celebration. By most folks’ standards, I am sure it would more than suffice, but I was challenging myself to be creative and that dish was lackluster for a special day. I kept the homemade pasta idea but, kicking the boiling pot to the curb, I settled on Mother’s Day Manicotti done on the grill.
As far as a recipe went, there really wasn’t one. My homemade pasta recipe was basically three cups of all-purpose flour, a cup of whole wheat flower and five eggs. The flour and eggs got mixed up in the fancy kitchen mixer with the dough hook for about five minutes. I kneaded it for an additional five minutes and then wrapped it in plastic. It went into the refrigerator for about three hours to get its behavior in check before I would crank it thru the pasta machine.
Meanwhile, I prepared my Mother’s Day manicotti filling. The cheese part of the filling was a blend of ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, and various Italian herbs and spices. I put the cheeses, along with the herb and spice components and a few eggs, in the fancy kitchen mixer and gave it a thorough mix for about five minutes on medium speed.
Manicotti that I am familiar with is basically tubes of pasta filled with various cheeses and baked in sauce. I wanted to add a meat component to the dish and grilled off some Italian sausage to make the Mother’s Day Manicotti more special than the run-of-the-mill variety.
When it was time to assemble the dish, I tried to assemble it as best I could, keeping in mind the high probability of the thing falling apart into a crumbled mess. For novice pasta makers like myself, this is a pretty good mantra to have.
I rolled the pasta out into sheets about 4” wide and 8” long. As I learned, with fresh pasta and a pasta machine, you need to start at the widest setting to begin stretching the noodle and work the pasta a few passes on each setting until you reach your preferred thickness.
I wanted the noodle to be thin enough to bend but also thick enough to hold in the ingredients without breaking. In the past when I have tried making stuffed pasta dishes, the old adage less is more resonated when deciding how much filling goes in each serving.
If you over-stuff, and need to make a tight pasta seal, the filling can squirt out and fall apart. Fortunately, the Mother’s Day manicotti was an improvisation in progress and did not require a tight seal. Equal parts grilled Italian sausage (crumbled) and cheese mixture went on the flat pasta, leaving about an inch border on all sides to reduce filling squirtage. I also learned that spooning the filling in the middle third of the noodle was quite helpful for assembly. To transform the pasta from flat to tube format, I flopped a third of the noodle over to the edge of the stuffing and flopped the opposite end back over the first. This was much easier than rolling the pasta like a cigar, which was my original plan.
I placed the uncooked pasta packets neatly in the bottom of a cast-iron Dutch oven that had a good amount of marinara sauce in the bottom. When the Dutch oven was filled with manicotti, I topped them with additional marinara sauce and a generous sprinkle of grated mozzarella cheese.
I cooked the manicotti on the Big Green Egg grill at about 375 for almost an hour. Because I thought that the bottom of the dish had a good chance of burning, I cooked over a grate raised above the coals to try to promote even distribution of heat. The sauce is important because it heats and cooks the noodle just as boiling it ahead of time would have.
The hardwood lump charcoalis a fantastic heat source and left a mild, but flavorful smoky flavor on the mozzarella cheese that topped the dish. Using the grill like an oven is a great way to cook in warmer weather without heating up your kitchen.
I probably did not need to go through all the extra effort to make this dish. The pasta could have been store-bought, the sausages simply boiled and my oven would have made manicotti just fine. But Mother’s Day is about making someone you love feel special. Hopefully, the amount of care I put into this dish resembles all the love that I have been given.
Whether you celebrate by making Mother’s Day Manicotti on the grill, or just by making reservations, I wish you and your family a Happy Mother’s Day!