Reader Pat H. of Coppell, Texas, and I have been talking about manicotti -- specifically, how to stuff it. I posted the question on my website and got lots of great ideas -- everything from using a zipper-top plastic bag and "squirting" the filling in, to deliberately slicing the manicotti along the top and "sealing" the opening with cheese.
But my favorite answer comes from Ronald P. in Federal Way, Wash.:
"Ladies, this is not brain surgery. I owned and operated an Italian restaurant in Federal Way. I precooked my regular pasta -- like spaghetti, rigatoni and penne -- and kept them cold till I served them up for customer orders. However, with a stuffed pasta like manicotti you have to do things differently. Ladies: Never, never, never precook your manicotti noodles ahead of time."
Since then, Pat and I have both tried stuffing the uncooked manicotti noodles and are very pleased with the results. Pat reports that pre-stuffing is the easiest method she has yet to find.
Since this method does require the ricotta mixture to be "stiff," I decided to beef up my traditional cheese manicotti recipe with ground beef. I absolutely love the result, the hearty filling paired with the al dente noodle after baking the raw manicotti noodles in sauce. No, it's not brain surgery. But I'm sure even brain surgeons like tips and tricks from other pros, so thank you, Ronald!
Suggested menu: Easiest Beef and Cheese Manicotti with green salad and Italian bread with garlic butter.
• Alicia Ross is the co-author of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap. Fast. Good!" (Workman, 2006). Write her at Kitchen Scoop, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106, or firstname.lastname@example.org. More at the Kitchen Scoop website, kitchenscoop.com.