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Stuff pasta shells with spring’s spinach

Using up a container of ricotta cheese has consumed some of my culinary attention span this past week.

I recently purchased the BelGioioso brand on a stellar sale at a locally owned grocer without a particular dish in mind, just the resolve that it would get used. Now with loads of fresh spinach on hand — purchased both at the store and farmers market — that dish is looking more and more like the classic stuffed shells.

A little more fussy than lasagna, given the process of stuffing each pasta shell, this recipe also yields a more fun presentation for kids and adults alike. Although fresh spinach — including locally grown — is at its lush, velvety, emerald green peak right now, frozen spinach could be used in a pinch. Two standard-size packages from the freezer section should suffice as a substitute.

Reward the freezer with a portion of this recipe, which makes enough for one large pan, or two small ones. Depending on your crowd, bake one pan for dinner and wrap the other in foil, encased in a resealable plastic bag, for freezing.

Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Shells

Tribune News Service photo

Salt, as needed

2 (16-ounce) bags fresh spinach (around 6 cups)

12 ounces large pasta shells

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

Pinch or 2 of red pepper flakes

1 (24-ounce) container whole milk ricotta

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish, divided

8 ounces shredded mozzarella

1 egg, beaten

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 to 3 cups marinara or tomato sauce

Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set next to stove.

Blanch the spinach in boiling water, in batches, for 15 to 20 seconds, until just wilted. Using tongs, transfer to ice water, then drain. Squeeze out excess water with a clean dish towel, finely chop and place in a large dry bowl.

Bring spinach water back to a boil and add the pasta shells. Cook according to package instructions until al dente, for around 10 to 12 minutes. (If cooked shells are too soft, they will be difficult to stuff.)

Drain shells and toss with the olive oil to keep them from sticking. Set aside to cool.

To blanched spinach, add the minced garlic, red pepper flakes, ricotta cheese, Parmesan and mozzarella. Stir to combine, then add the beaten egg and stir again to combine until well blended. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Pour enough of the marinara or tomato sauce into a large baking pan to cover bottom, about 3/4 to 1 cup. (You can use 2 smaller pans if you want to freeze 1 for later.)

Fill each cooked shell with a generous tablespoon spinach-cheese filling. Arrange in a single layer in baking dish on top of sauce. Drizzle or spoon more tomato sauce on top (make it as saucy as you like) and cover dish with foil.

Place in preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan.

Makes 6 servings.