Sometimes we all need some comfort food: a hug on a plate, so to speak. It’s hard to go wrong with a classic Italian dish like this cheese-stuffed manicotti in a rich venison and mushroom sauce.
You want to cook the pasta until it is just soft enough to give slightly when you squeeze it gently. Overcook at the start, and the pasta will be soft and mushy when the dish is finished. Don’t worry — it will finish cooking during the baking process.
To stuff the manicotti, you can use a spoon, but it is easier to fill a 1-gallon plastic bag with your cheese filling, snip away the corner, and pipe the tubes full of cheese.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground venison
8 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
One 24-ounce can San Marzano whole plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon kosher salt
12 to 14 manicotti shells
15 ounces ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella, divided
1 1/2 cups shredded provolone, divided
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large egg
1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
Start by making the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the ground venison, mushrooms, and onion. Cook until the venison is browned and the onion is soft and translucent. Add the garlic, cook for 2 additional minutes, stirring often, then add the tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Add the Italian seasoning and salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Use a spatula or spoon to break up the tomatoes as they simmer. Continue cooking until the tomatoes have broken down into a chunky sauce.
While the sauce simmers, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the manicotti noodles. Cook until slightly softened but still a bit firm, about 4 to 6 minutes.
While the noodles cook, add the ricotta and half of the mozzarella, provolone, and Parmesan cheeses. Add the egg, Italian seasoning, parsley, thyme, salt and pepper.
Use a fork to blend the mixture. You can spoon this into the shells, but I find it easier to transfer it to a 1-gallon zip-seal bag with a corner snipped off to pipe the cheese mixture into the shells.
Remove the shells from the water and allow to cool. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Add a thin layer of meat sauce to the bottom of the pan. Pipe or spoon the cheese mixture into the shells, placing each shell in the baking pan as it is filled.
Pour the remaining sauce over the stuffed shells. Sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella, provolone, and Parmesan cheeses over the top of the meat sauce.
Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly all over.
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