Last summer, we celebrated my mom’s 80th birthday with a family dinner on her deck. We were blessed with the most beautiful weather that evening, a near-perfect attendance (when the Army calls, the Army calls), yard games, and another generation of healthy (a.k.a energetic) (a.k.a. active) (a.k.a. adorable) kiddos to watch as they chased after bubbles and each other.
I didn’t want my mom to go to a lot of trouble preparing for all of us, so I didn’t tell her what we were doing or where we were going. I just told her we were celebrating her birthday. I tried to get her out of the house that afternoon so I could do the prep work but she didn’t want to leave us. I finally broke down and said “We are having the party here, on your deck. If you don’t leave, I can’t pull it off.”
I said it with a smile and a hug though and she conceded. I didn’t just kick her to the curb either. I had arranged for her to get together with her friends for coffee … so don’t think ill of me. I love that lady!
Italian seemed like the perfect choice for a party like this but I wanted it to be special and easy to serve. With a farm-family like ours, you start with a solid, traditional meat option: Italian sausage with marinara. Because we do have some family members who enjoy stepping outside the realm of meat-and-potatoes dining, I decided to make a spinach-artichoke-pesto version as well. And to make it all just a bit more impressive for this special occasion, the fillings were rolled up in the pasta instead of layered between it.
Add a mixed greens salad, warm focaccia bread, plenty of wine (and beer and juice boxes), and it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday”!
Traditional marinara and sausage combine with ricotta and mozzarella to fill half of the roll-ups. Sauteed spinach, artichokes and basil combine with the cheeses for a vegetarian option in the other half.
Brown Italian sausage and drain. Allow to cool. (This step can be done a day or two before assembling the rolls.)
In a food processor, combine sauteed spinach, artichokes, basil/pesto and garlic. Pulse until evenly chopped but not pureed. Place mixture in a medium-size bowl. Add half of each of the following: ricotta, Parmesan, dried herbs, salt and pepper. Add one egg and stir to combine. Set aside. In another medium-size bowl, combine remaining ricotta, Parmesan, dried herbs, salt, pepper and egg. Stir to combine. Set aside.
Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling water that has been well seasoned with salt. Cook according to package directions but reduce cooking time by 2-3 minutes. Remove from boiling water to drain. The pasta will finish cooking as the roll-ups bake.
Lay noodles out flat, and spread a light layer of the ricotta mixture across each one. To make sure you distribute the ingredients evenly, lay out 12-14 noodles for each filling mixture and complete one layer on all noodles before moving on to the next layer.
If making the sausage version, sprinkle sausage evenly down each noodle.
Sprinkle an even layer of shredded mozzarella on each noodle.
Gently pat all ingredients down and roll up each noodle. Try not to push down on the noodle as you roll or the ingredients will come out the sides or end.
Lightly spray 2 9"x13" baking pans with cooking spray and pour half a jar of marinara/spaghetti sauce in the bottom of each. Place the rolls side-by-side in the pans. Pour remaining sauce over the top of the rolls. Cover each pan with aluminum foil. (See note below for freezing instructions.)
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove aluminum foil from pans and continue baking for another 20-30 minutes or until bubbly and thoroughly heated.
2. If you don't have fresh basil, you can substitute 2 tablespoons of pesto. To make your own pesto, click here.
3. Of course you don't have to make both types of filling. If you only want the traditional marinara with sausage, double the sausage and skip the spinach, artichokes, and basil/pesto. Only want the spinach/artichoke rolls, skip the sausage and double the spinach, artichokes and pesto. Want both? Combine all filling ingredients. Want to make a smaller batch (e.g. 12-14 rolls)? Just make one of the fillings and use just one jar of sauce.
4. Unbaked roll-ups can be frozen for 2-3 months. To bake, defrost completely and bake as directed.
5. The small bread pans work great for holding 2 roll-ups each. Smaller pans may only take 45 minutes to fully bake.
Most recently, I made this recipe for the MS Run the US team as they made their way from Los Angeles, through Des Moines, to the completion of their journey to New York. This is the third year we’ve hosted this group for dinner as a way to show our support of this amazing, fund-and-awareness-raising group. To learn a little more about this group and why feed them, click here.
Whether you are celebrating a special person, entertaining angels, or feeding a hungry family, this recipe is sure to warm the hearts and fill the tummies of those you love.