For those of you who have bid “farewell to the flesh” for the next 40 days (or at least for the remaining Fridays between now and Easter Sunday), this dish is for you. It is my annual creation added to an ever-growing list of meatless meals I prepare during the Season of Lent. Abstaining from meat has never been a huge lesson in self-denial for me or my family. In New Orleans, where fresh seafood is abundant, it would be a stretch to consider codfish balls, fried shrimp poor boys, all-you-can-eat fried catfish, seafood gumbo, crawfish etouffee, boiled crawfish and, now, seafood manicotti, sacrifices. But avoiding meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent is a practice we honor and respect. And through this exercise of abstinence, many magnificent meals have been born.
This year’s Lenten specialty did not start out as a seafood dish. My initial thought was to create a vegetable pasta entree with a butternut squash and bechamel filling. Basically, a spinoff of my creamed spinach from last week. But I’m so glad I didn’t ignore the seafood that was tucked in my fridge. Those sweet Louisiana Gulf shrimp and luscious lump crabmeat added a richness that no vegetable could match and elevated an average pasta plate into an awesomely elegant meal.
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1 8-ounce box manicotti pasta (12 shells)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions
2 pounds small shrimp (41 or higher count), peeled and deveined
2 teaspoons Creole seasoning, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks
4 1/2 cups Bechamel Sauce, divided, see recipe
1/2 pound lump crabmeat
Line a baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper; set aside. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente; drain. Place shells in a single layer on prepared baking sheet about 1/2-inch apart; set aside. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat oil. Add green onions and saute until they begin to soften. Add shrimp, 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning, thyme, salt and pepper. Cook, turning as necessary, until shrimp are cooked through and pink, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; let cool. Once cool, transfer shrimp mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, egg yolks, 1 cup bechamel sauce and remaining teaspoon Creole seasoning. Fold in crabmeat. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stuff each shell with shrimp and crab mixture and place in a large baking dish lightly coated with cooking spray. Pour remaining bechamel sauce over stuffed manicotti. Bake until bubbly and top is light golden brown, 15- 20 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 4-6 servings.
Bechamel Sauce Recipe
1 quart half-n-half
1 bay leaf
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Place half-n-half and bay leaf in a 4-cup microwavable measuring cup or dish and cook on high for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, place butter in a large saucepan and melt over medium heat. Gradually add flour, whisking constantly, until blended and bubbly (that’s your white roux). Do not allow flour to brown. Remove half-n-half from microwave and discard bay leaf. Gradually add half-n-half to butter mixture, whisking constantly. Cook, stirring frequently, until sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. Do not allow sauce to boil. Remove from heat and stir in salt, black pepper nutmeg and cayenne pepper. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Reheat on low before serving. Makes about 4 1/2 cups.