Some dishes are universally loved. These tend to be comfort-centric, carb-laden, just-like-Mom's traditional recipes that trendy Portland chefs like to "reimagine" and "deconstruct" with burrata, fava bean emulsions and palm sugar-sanded pancetta cracklins. I don't hate these familiar flavors, but I do try and avoid making them too often. It just seems redundant. We're only allotted so many dinners in a lifetime, why not try and have something original?
Still, I try to compromise and make one of these recipes that Matt's always clamoring for every once and a while. Last time it was the meatloaf that ended up changing my tune. On Sunday it was Italian stuffed shells. I always think of it as the standard dish to cover in foil and bring to new moms/mourning widows/hair transplant recoverees. It freezes as smooth as ice, so they're ideal to make in a gigantic batch and then pack away for upcoming weeknights. After our kabob adventure, I thought it was only fair to go back to the Snuggie of dinners.
I did stuffed shells two ways--a hearty sausage version, and a lightened vegetarian spin. Even if I wasn't making options for me and my eating habits, it's still nice to have more than one option in the sprawling sheet pan. One large container of ricotta will fill a cooked pasta box of shells, so what you do in between is up to you. Nutmeg is essential; it riffs off the natural nuttiness of fresh ricotta. Don't be shy with the marinara, either. They don't taste great dry. It looks like a lot when you're layering it above and below the shells, but they get much dryer in the oven.
I served these with a salad tossed with the Dark Cherry vinegar I scored at my new obsession, Benessere. That's a blog for another day, though. It deserves the unsullied spotlight. After a hefty Sunday night dinner, we've both eaten shell leftovers for two days straight and I have to admit, I'm still not really sick of them. They taste almost better reheated, which doesn't make a lot of sense--they don't really marinade flavors. Maybe it just feels extra comforting to pull something that tastes so real from a microwave. That's why we've been packing them up for new mamas for so many years, after all.
Stuffed Shells Two Ways
1 box dry pasta shells
2 jars marinara sauce (extra bonus awesome points if you canned your own!!)
1 32 oz container of regular or lowfat ricotta cheese
1 16 oz Mozzarella cheese, grated
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 tsp nutmeg, divided
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp & 1/2 tbsp Penzey's Tuscan Sunset seasoning (or other Italian-style seasoning), divided
1/2 lb sweet Italian sausage
1/2 small zucchini, grated
1 cup frozen spinach, thawed
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350. Spread 1 jar of marinara sauce evenly on the bottom of a large Pyrex pan.
Cook the shells according to package directions until just under al dente. Let cool in the colander as you assemble the 2 fillings.
Meat Filling: Cook and crumble sausage and Tuscan Sunset seasoning in pan over medium heat. Cool slightly. Mix cooled sausage with 1/2 of the ricotta container, 1 egg, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, 1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese, salt and pepper.
Vegetable Filling: Mix shredded zucchini, 1 egg, 1 cup shredded mozzarella, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, lemon juice, 1/2 tbsp Italian seasoning, frozen spinach and salt and pepper with the remaining ricotta. (Note: To make even healthier, you could omit the mozz and just have shredded zucchini instead. I, however, cheated this time around.)
Generously stuff half the shells with the meat filling, which should yield about 16 shells. Repeat with vegetable mixture. You can really get that filling in there. It's not going anywhere, and it's not going to explode in a pot of boiling water like over-stuffed ravioli. Don't be shy. Everybody likes their shells stuffy. Line each evenly in pan, 4 by 8. Alternatively, you could put these in 2 smaller square baking dishes and freeze one just like that.
After assembly, cover the shells with the other jar of marinara, remaining mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is molten lava gooey. Garnish with fresh basil.
Leftovers can be promptly frozen after cooling, or you can freeze the shells before baking.