Stuffed shells are a favorite in my family. Growing up in New Jersey, not too far from the city, there was never a shortage of pasta. There was pasta in all varieties, fresh, dried, rolled, dressed with the most delicious sauces, and best of all, stuffed.
Tortellini has always been my sister’s favorite food, but my mom would regularly make stuffed shells for us to enjoy as a family. They are chewy, saucy, and cheesy, all qualities I believe good pasta dishes have. Omit the meat, and stuffed shells are vegetarian, or dress them up with with browned sausage or pancetta filling. There is really so much flexibility here.
Note: make a big batch of the base filling then divide it into four, keep two (half) as they are, add sausage and fried sage to another quarter, and add spinach to the other. You will then have 3 different varieties of stuffed shells! If you’re feeling feisty, go ahead and combine the spinach with the sausage to make a single, multi-dimensional, delicious filling.
- 1 12-ounce box of jumbo shells (about 40 shells)
for the base filling (divide in 4 to make other filling)
- 16 ounces of whole milk ricotta
- 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup basil, chopped
- ¼ cup parsley, chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
for the sausage filling (add to ¼ of the base filling from above)
- 2 sausage links, removed from the casing and crumbled
- ½ cup sage leaves
for the spinach filling (add to ¼ of the base filling from above)
- 1 10-ounce package of frozen spinach, thawed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 3 cups marinara sauce
- ½ cup grated low-moisture, whole milk mozzarella cheese
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese or grana padano cheese
In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, eggs, and parmesan until combined. Add in the basil, parsley, oregano, lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit in the refrigerator while you prepare the other ingredients.
Squeeze and press any excess water out of the spinach. Add the salt and crushed red pepper and mix thoroughly.
Place the sausage and sage leaves into a large skillet and cook on low heat until lightly browned, around 10 minutes. The sausage will continue cooking in the shells so no need to overcook it here.
At this point, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shells to the water and cook for about 5-6 minutes. Strain and drizzle a thin layer of olive oil to prevent them from sticking together. Let them cool until they are cool enough to comfortably handle.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F. Divide the filling into four parts, keep ½ of it as it is, add ¼ to the spinach, and add the remaining ¼ to the sausage and sage.
Coat the bottom of a large, deep, oven-safe pan with a layer of marinara sauce, about 1 cup. Fill each shell with about 2 tablespoons of filling and place directly on top of the layer of tomato sauce. (You can also freeze the shells at this point, without placing them in the pan). Once all of the shells have been filled, cover them with the remaining 2 cups of marinara sauce, grated mozzarella, and grated parmesan. Cover and bake for 10 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 10 minutes until the sauce begins to bubble and the cheese is thoroughly melted.
Serve with a salad for a crisp and light side!