BACK TO SCHOOL, BACK TO THE DINNER TABLE BY Olivia Mack McCool
These stuffed shells are packed with flavor
There’s nothing quite like the distinct feeling of “back to school.” Even as an adult I can still vividly remember the excitement surrounding school shopping and the anticipation of new schedules and surroundings. It’s also a time of getting organized after a long lazy summer. The value of a family dinner eaten together seems to be brought back into focus as everyone’s lives start to revolve once again around the school day. Something about stuffed shells baking in the oven fits in perfectly – especially as the evenings start to get crisper.
Maybe the words stuffed shells don’t conjure up the fondest food memories for you. The renditions I ate in my childhood often were swimming in a sub par jarred sauce and featured a pretty bland cheese filling. But the stuffed shells below are here to make new memories – of a filling packed with not only flavor but also two different vegetables and a creamy homemade tomato sauce. The recipe is baked right in the pan you cook everything in, and beyond that all you need to dirty is a pot to boil the pasta shells. I’m very fond of cookware that can transition easily from stovetop to oven and then eventually as a serving piece on the table. Homemade is great but fewer dishes to wash is even better – this recipe has both.
If you’re like me and you would find great joy in making this ahead and leaving just the assembling and oven time for right before dinner, below are all the steps that can be done in advance.
Boil the shells. Drain and drizzle with a tiny bit of oil so they don’t stick.
Make the filling in its entirety.
Make the sauce and leave it right in the pan.
Shred the remaining mozzarella cheese.
1 to 2 hours before dinner, assemble the dish and bake!
Stuffed Shells - Serves 4
1 (12-ounce) box jumbo shells
1 pound (2 cups) ricotta cheese
1 (8-ounce) ball of fresh mozzarella, divided (half cut into small cubes, half ripped into shreds)
1 cup basil leaves, finely chopped
⅓ cup grated parmigiano reggiano or parmesan, plus more
3 garlic cloves, divided (1 grated on a microplane, 2 minced)
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 ounces mushrooms (any kind), finely chopped
6 ounces baby spinach
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup white wine (optional)
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
¼ cup heavy cream
Pinch of granulated sugar
Boil the shells: Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil. Boil the shells for 8 minutes. They will be underdone. Drain and rinse with cold water.
Make the filling: In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, the cubed mozzarella, basil, grated parm, 1 grated garlic clove, egg, salt, nutmeg and a pinch of black pepper. Set aside in the refrigerator.
Melt the butter in a large oven proof pan or a large skillet. Add in the mushrooms and sauté for 5 minutes until soft. Add in the spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Season with salt. Turn off the heat and run a scissors through the mixture a few times to cut up any larger pieces of spinach. Scrape the vegetables into the bowl with the ricotta filling and mix well.
Make the sauce: Without cleaning out the pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add in the 2 minced garlic cloves. Cook for 2 minutes until the garlic is soft and just starting to brown. Pour in the white wine and scrape up any stuck-on bits. Pour in the tomatoes, season with a large pinch of salt and stir the sauce well. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the heavy cream and a small pinch of sugar. Turn off the heat and heat the oven to 350°.
Stuff the shells: Spoon a heaping tablespoon of the filling into each shell and then nestle the shell, opening side up, into the sauce. Repeat until you’ve used all the filling. You may not use all the shells and that’s OK. If you’re using a separate baking dish, transfer the sauce into the baking dish before you start stuffing the shells.
Sprinkle the shredded mozzarella evenly on top of the shells, followed by a little more parmigiano. Bake the shells uncovered for 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes then serve. These make excellent leftovers too!
Olivia Mack McCool is a recipe developer, cookbook author, food stylist and local mom who lives in Maplewood. For more of her work and recipes, check out her website oliviamackmccool.com and follow along on Instagram @oliviamackmccool.