Thursday, February 03, 2005


For many years of my youth, this was my favorite dish that my mom made, so learning how to make it for myself several years ago was very satisfying. There’s nothing revolutionary about the spinach-cheese-tomato combination, but the combination of flavors always reminds me of home. Plus, as I think I’ve mentioned before, it’s fun to stuff things inside other things. The recipe’s also very versatile, because after you’ve stuffed the shells, you can put them on a baking sheet and freeze them until they’re hard, pull them off the baking sheet, put them in a Ziplock bag, and keep them in the freezer for as long as you like. Then you can take out however many you want to prepare, defrost them, throw them in a baking dish with tomato sauce, bake them, and insta-dinner. Or you can just skip the freezing and bake the whole batch right away, as I did when I made them last weekend.

I secretly like stuffed shells best made with cottage cheese, which I think is how my mother usually did it, because the cottage cheese gets very creamy and melty, but A finds the idea grotesque, so I use ricotta—and it's good, maybe better, it’s just not the pure experience. This time, I did things slightly differently, because I had a 15-ounce container of ricotta and a 1-pound bag of Trader Joe’s frozen spinach. So I used a bit less cheese than usual and a lot more spinach, and better-quality spinach at that, and the result was an improvement. The stuffing turned out slightly firmer, less gooey, and nice and green and fresh-looking. I’d definitely recommend amping up the spinach if you try this recipe.

1 package large pasta shells
1 pound cottage cheese or ricotta cheese
10-16 ounces frozen spinach
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
2 eggs
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste
canned plain tomato sauce (about one 8-ounce can per 12 pasta shells)
dried herbs, such as Italian seasoning, oregano, and fennel
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Put a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil for cooking the pasta shells. While this heats, beat the eggs in a large mixing bowl and then stir in the three cheeses, a pinch of nutmeg, and some salt and pepper. Defrost the spinach in the microwave (following the package directions) and then squeeze all the liquid out of it (by far the most annoying part of this recipe but if you don’t do it well, you’ll have runny filling). Stir the spinach into the cheese mixture.

3. When the water boils, add the pasta shells, cook until al dente, drain them, and rinse them under cold water until they're cool enough to handle. Spoon some of the filling into each of the shells and place them in a 9x12 glass baking dish.

3. Pour canned tomato sauce over the shells and generously sprinkle seasonings over the top (I use oregano, Italian seasoning, fennel seeds, and pepper--if you want to do this like my mother does it, you have to use the fennel seeds). Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for about 20 minutes, then take off the foil and bake uncovered for about 10 more minutes.

Serves: 5-8 (depends on how many shells you put in a serving; A and I like 6, which is a fairly large portion, so we usually end up with 6 servings)
Time: 1 hour

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