"I always say there are no bad cooks, just bad recipes," argues Linda Brownell.
|Linda Brownell with her meat and cheese manicotti. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
That must mean she owns a cracker jack collection of recipes, because Brownell has won more than her fair share of "best of show" baking, cooking and canning ribbons at both the Pemberville and Wood County Fairs.
It's rather ironic, then, that she's chosen her meat-and-cheese manicotti for a Cook's Corner submission this week.
"I don't really have the recipe written down," admitted Brownell, the residential supervisor for Wood Lane Residential Services. She had to force herself to put pen to paper, and it took a couple tries to create a version she wanted to commit to posterity.
"It's my own recipe" and dates from 10 to 15 years ago. "It kind of morphed from a basic manicotti recipe, but I like meat in mine. I added the onions, parsley, basil" and this particular mixture of cheeses.
"The ingredients can be altered based on preference," Brownell pointed out. "You can use different cheeses, more or less meat, different seasonings, etcetera.
"If you run out of mozzarella but you've got provolone, you can throw that in."
Bottom line, "it's an easy dish not to make a mistake on."
Brownell likes Italian cuisine.
"It's a comfort food. It's heavy, it's warm."
The meat-and-cheese manicotti "is also a great leftover dish; you can freeze it and it warms up nicely. I almost prefer it warmed up," she added. "There's something about the consistency. It's already set."
Over the course of the decade, the manicotti has just become one of her staple dishes: "Feel like Italian? Let's do this."
"It's an easy recipe to cut in half," but if you decide to do so, you still want to use one egg - no less, Brownell advises.
She hails from upstate New York and like many others, came to Bowling Green to attend the university "and just never left."
Brownell started working at Wood Lane Residential while she was still an undergraduate and is still there 29 years later.
Because she doesn't have kids at home, she sometimes makes up a pan and brings it in to work, where her 15 or so coworkers are happy to devour it for lunch.
"People bring food in" regularly. "And we try to make the people who are dieting feel really bad," Brownell teased.
For example, there was the day she brought in a batch of cookies and put up a big sign advertising them as "low-cal - 15 calories per cookie." The sign added in small print: "serving size: 1/32nd of a cookie."
She and her coworkers hold plenty of fundraisers for WLRS's Relay for Life team or other charitable causes.
"A lot of our fundraising things involve food," usually a contest of some sort. "I work with a bunch of competitive people.
"We just have a lot of fun doing it. Somebody brought carrot cake cupcakes and I put up a note, "left out all night; vote for the cheesecake!' and she'd come by and tear it off."
Brownell entered her meat-and-cheese manicotti in another office cooking competition. "I'm still bitter that my manicotti got beaten," she added with a big grin. It did help that "the winner was a member of my staff," Brandi Wallace, who entered a chicken dish.
"But I beat her at the fair," Brownell quickly added.
She first competed at the Wood County Fair four or five years ago, when she entered a single item - a jar of bread and butter pickles. It ended up winning best of show.
With that kind of encouragement, she upped her involvement each year until now she's bringing 40 or 50 items - baked, culinary and canned goods.
In 2011 she entered a cheesecake for the first time and, sure enough, it won best of show.
She just attributes her luck to the cheesecake recipe she found because this year she entered two separate cheesecake categories, both starting with that same basic cheesecake. You guessed it, both won first place.
Still, she said, "fairs are finicky. You never know what they're looking for."
She especially likes to enter canned goods.
"Canning has become very popular," said Brownell, adding that Wood Lane Residential is currently offering a series of canning how-to classes for staff. She herself taught a segment on making bread and butter pickles. "People pay like $5 and it covers the expenses.
"Canned goods are great because they make great gifts for teachers or baby sitters. You can dress 'em up."
Meat and cheese manicotti
1 box of manicotti shells
2 jars of spaghetti sauce (or 1 large jar)
1½ pounds of lean ground beef
¼ cup finely chopped sweet onion
1 clove minced garlic
2 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
2 cups ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
2-3 T. parsley
1 tsp. oregano or basil
1/2 tsp. salt (optional)
Brown ground beef, onion and garlic just until done. Drain.
Heat spaghetti sauce on stove top on a low heat. Stir in about ½ - ¾ cup of the ground beef mixture.
Combine ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, 2 cups mozzarella cheese, egg, parsley, oregano (or basil) and salt in large bowl. Add remaining ground beef mixture.
Cook shells according to directions on box. Drain and cool until they are comfortable to handle. Stuff shells with cheese and meat mixture, being careful not to overstuff (shells will split).
Pour a small amount of sauce in bottom of large baking dish (13-by-9-inch or larger;) or 2 smaller baking dishes. Place shells in rows on top of the sauce leaving a tiny bit of space between shells. Cover with remaining sauce and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. During last 15 minutes sprinkle remaining mozzarella over the top. Remove from oven and allow to set for 10 minutes before serving.
Notes: The ingredients can be altered based on preference. You can use different cheeses, more or less meat, different seasonings.
Easy recipe to cut in half (still use 1 egg).