Happy Christmas Eve eve! Before I scoot off for some holiday R +R, I have to share my recipe for spinach and artichoke stuffed shells with you. In Italy, stuffed pastas are smaller and more delicate than their Italian-American counterparts. Stuffed pasta in Italy is also exclusively made with fresh pasta dough. The more popular stuffed pastas of Italy are cannelloni, cappellacci, tortelli, ravioli, tortelloni, agnolotti, and tortellini, to name a few, but there are many more varieties depending on the region of Italy where they are made. The general term for any type of stuffed pasta is known as pasta ripiena. I am still working behind the scenes on my fresh pasta-making skills before I bring you Italy’s more traditional specialties. It’s fun practicing!
I made these spinach and artichoke stuffed shells for some new friends of ours who are expecting their first baby (a girl!) in March. The mom-to-be, Lauren, is on strict bed rest for several weeks and dad-to-be, Andrew, is on cooking duty (both Lauren and Andrew are fantastic cooks). Since they have to put their “date nights” on hold for a while, I thought I would bring “date night” to them. Fun fact: Lauren and Andrew are the couple that bought our former house a year ago. A few weeks after we moved out, Peter and I went over to welcome them to the neighborhood, and we have been friends ever since. Our meeting was serendipitous because it turns out I left a packed box of all of my kitchen gadgets and knives in a cabinet, and Lauren and Andrew found it shortly after they moved in and were hoping we would come back to claim it. Clearly, our friendship was meant to be!
I love making baked pasta casseroles because they are a from-scratch meal that is easy to pull together, freezes well, feeds a crowd, or leaves plenty of delicious leftovers to enjoy throughout the week. The filling for stuffed shells can be as simple as ricotta and mozzarella cheese, but I love the classic flavor combination of spinach and artichokes, which also makes a hearty and nutritious filling. To amp up the flavor of the filling, I sautéed the spinach-artichoke mixture in olive oil infused with minced garlic before combining it with the ricotta, mozzarella, egg, herbs and seasonings. Once the pasta shells were cooked, it was just a matter of stuffing them, topping them with some tomato sauce, and adding a final sprinkling of mozzarella cheese before baking it off. I quickly realized that the colors of this dish are not only very Italian, but also perfect for the holidays! If you have vegetarian friends or family members coming over for the holiday festivities (or for any occasion), spinach and artichoke stuffed shells make a delicious and satisfying main course.
I hope you enjoy this holiday season with family and friends, filled with delicious food, of course! I will be back at the beginning of January with new recipes.
From my kitchen to yours,
Spinach + Artichoke Stuffed Shells
The filling can be made one day in advance, stored in a covered container, and refrigerated. It is very important to squeeze as much of the water from the spinach as possible before using it to prevent a watery filling. Put the spinach in a clean dish towel, gather up the sides and twist until most of the water is expelled. Also: I highly recommend grating your own cheese. Pre-shredded cheese, although convenient, contains anti-caking ingredients that can add an unpleasant “grainy” texture.
1 16-ounce package frozen artichoke quarters, defrosted and patted dry
2 9-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed of all water
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for oiling the baking sheet)
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided
2 32-ounce containers whole milk ricotta cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped basil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (plus more for sprinkling on top)
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 12-ounce packages jumbo pasta shells
2 tablespoons Kosher salt (for the pasta cooking water)
1 recipe tomato sauce
To make the filling
Place the artichoke quarters and spinach in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse several times until the ingredients are finely chopped and the mixture is uniform in texture. Set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add in the olive oil and let it warm for about 15 seconds. Add in the minced garlic and sauté it until it is light golden, stirring constantly. Adjust the heat to ensure the garlic does not burn. Add in the spinach-artichoke mixture, ½ teaspoon of the salt and ½ teaspoon of the pepper and stir to coat the vegetables in the olive oil. Cook the spinach-artichoke mixture over medium heat for about 10 minutes until it is heated through completely and is fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool. Tip: to cool the spinach-artichoke mixture quickly, transfer it to a baking sheet and spread it out in an even layer.
Put the ricotta in a large mixing bowl and add in the cooled spinach-artichoke mixture, parsley, basil, eggs, mozzarella cheese, nutmeg, the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and the remaining ½ teaspoon pepper. Using a fork, mix the ingredients until they are completely incorporated. If you are making the filling in advance, you can cover the bowl tightly with a lid or plastic wrap and refrigerate it at this point. If you are using the filling right away, set it aside while you cook the pasta shells.
To assemble the stuffed shells
Preheat oven to 375°.
Coat a baking sheet with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add in the Kosher salt. Return the water to a boil and add in the pasta shells, stirring immediately to prevent them from sticking. Cook the pasta shells 2 minutes less than instructed on the package directions (they will finish cooking in the oven), stirring often. Drain the shells through a colander and transfer them immediately to the oiled baking sheet. Toss the shells to coat them with the olive oil (this will prevent them from sticking to each other). Separate any shells that are stuck together. Pick out any shells that are ripped or broken (you can toss them with a little tomato sauce and eat them for a snack).
Spread about ½ cup of the tomato sauce onto the bottom of a large casserole dish (or two smaller casserole dishes). Fill each shell generously with the filling and place the shells open side up into the casserole dish in one layer. Pour about ½ cup of the tomato sauce over the shells and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Cover the casserole dish with foil and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the filling is heated through completely. Remove the foil and bake the shells an additional 5-10 minutes. Serve immediately.