Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Back in the Game: Vegan Manicotti

It's been quite awhile. I've been busy.

That's a bit of a loaded statement. Let me explain:
I became pregnant in May and about a month later became unable to eat anything interesting. For once, I am not exaggerating. Nothing with any flavor, taste, odor, fragrance, aroma, color etc. could come within a 5 ft. radius of me. It was white food: white bread, saltines, plain potatoes, cheerios and fruit. For nearly 4 months, I was unable to stomach almost anything from my 'normal' diet. Even the white food ended up not staying in my stomach for very long. Let's just leave it at that.

On top of that, I few weeks ago, we moved 2600 miles away to the west coast of our fair country and though I've been able to return to 'normal' food, I've been too busy with the move to even think about cooking.

So now I've returned, starting my 3rd trimester of pregnancy, in a new state and in a new kitchen. On top of all that, I'm unemployed and find myself filling the role of 'housewife' or 'homemaker'.

Needless to say, there's going to be a long, somewhat rocky adjustment period. And what do I do under stress?

I cook.

So here we go...

This isn't the first dinner I've prepared in our new home, but it's fresh in my mind, so I'm going to go with it before the baby brain takes over and I lose another 50 IQ points.

One of my many TV pleasures is watching America's Test Kitchen. I love the idea of using scientific methods to narrow down the best ingredients/techniques for a given dish. I'm not saying that anyone has to agree with what these chefs consider 'the best' in the end, but the fact that they use experimentation (the controlled and systematic variation of the different variables in the cooking process) and sampling (the taste-testers) to improve something as important as brownies or garlic bread brings a proud tear to my eye. In light of the rampant ignorance of science and its usefulness in this country, at least one PBS show gets it.

So I caught an episode the other day where they tried to take the mystique out of manicotti. Any vegans who might be reading this might say "Hey, wait a minute, they NEVER have vegan recipes on that show." Well, you're right, they don't (though they did publish the BEST veggie burger recipe a few years ago in their magazine). That's where I come in. Duh.

Back to manicotti. I wasn't so interested in the ingredients as I was in the technique. I have avoided manicotti/cannelloni because they're difficult to handle. I mean that literally. If you stuff them when they're dry and uncooked and try to make up for it with a watery sauce, you end up with watery sauce and only partially-cooked pasta. If you boil the noodles first, you end up hucking half the batch because they tear so easily when boiling or trying to stuff them.

The ATK crew came up with a great solution: use no-boil lasagna noodles (read:cooked, then dehydrated in the factory). This is a brilliant idea in that it removes the whole tearing issue. The noodle sheets are immersed in boiling water for a few minutes to make them pliable. They can then be filled and rolled while they're still relatively strong and tear-proof.

Now I've read some explanations as to the difference between cannelloni and manicotti. I think it was Wikipedia that said that manicotti are the pre-formed tubes while cannelloni are sheets that are rolled. I don't really care what you call them.

So here's my attempt.

Tofu-Broccoli-Herb Manicotti/Cannelloni.

4 no-boil lasagna noodles
Boiling water
3/4 brick of extra-firm tofu
1 c cashews (I had roasted, salted on hand)
1 tbsp. Italian herbs (dried)
2 cups broccoli florets
handful of fresh spinach
handful of fresh parsley
small handful of fresh basil
salt to taste
1 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
2 tbsp. minced garlic
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. mixed, dried Italian herbs (rosemary, oregano, basil, thyme)
2 tsp. sugar


1. In a food processor, grind the cashews until they're a fine powder.
2. Add the tofu and dried herbs and pulse until it becomes a loose paste (salt to taste, it may be salty from the cashews). Set this aside in a separate bowl.
3. Steam the broccoli (I cook it in the microwave for 2 minutes) until slightly tender.
4. Place broccoli, fresh herbs and spinach in the food processor and pulse until very finely minced (nearly pesto-like). Set this in another bowl.
5. In a large skillet or saute pan, heat the oil and saute the garlic for a few minutes.
6. Add the can of tomatoes, the dried herbs and the sugar and let simmer while you prepare the noodles.
Noodles: (at this point, pre-heat the oven to 370F)
7. Place the noodle sheets in a shallow dish and cover them with boiling water. Leave them for 2-3 minutes, or until they are pliable.
8. Carefully remove each noodle to a clean, dry dishtowel spread out on the counter (don't use paper towels or the noodles with stick to them and it will be gross).
9. Spread some of the tofu filling on 3/4ths of the noodle, then top this filling with as much of the broccoli/herb filling.
10. Roll the noodle up like a rug. The filling-less end will stick to the outside of the roll to hold it all together.
11. Repeat with the other 4 noodles.
12. Once the sauce has cooked for roughly 10-15 minutes (adding salt and pepper to taste), spread half of the sauce in the bottom of your baking dish.
12. Add the pasta rolls and cover with the remaining sauce.
13. Bake COVERED for 30 minutes.
14. Let it rest for 15 minutes.

Verdict: Incredibly yummy. Surprisingly so. I'm rarely impressed with what I cook, but for something that I concocted on the spur of the moment, I have to say that I'm very proud. We had this with some quick garlic bread. I was too exhausted to make a salad. How sad is that?

So there it is. My first post of a new era.

(Photos will follow soon)