Mother’s Day is coming up fast, and due to our current set of worldly circumstances it may not be possible to sit down with our mom around the same table this year. This, however, may not necessarily prevent you from taking dinner to your mother, or any other special someone who you remember on Mother’s Day. One idea for such a delivery might be these Ricotta and Spinach Stuffed Pasta Shells. I first made these for my husband Dick’s large family Christmas party in December, and can attest that they travel well, bake and reheat beautifully, and are usually happily greeted.
My 89-year-old mother, Neeners, ate three gigantic shells of my last batch and started looking around for more. “This is a keeper – take it to the County Fair” was her verdict. This is a big step up from other ratings. I often use Neeners as a recipe tester, and she is brutally honest. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve heard “Move on – don’t waste any more time on this” if my attempts do not meet her standards. Over the last six months, Neeners has suffered a stroke and two seizures that have set her back a step or two, but as she often says, “I’m fine from the neck down”. She is still as strong as an ox, has the appetite of a linebacker, and has not lost one little bit of her oftentimes brutal wit. “I hope you inherit my sense of humor” she told me recently, after cracking herself up over something she said that made her laugh so hard she snorted. “Oh gee – me too” I replied.
The recipe makes about twenty stuffed shells, and that will serve six people with no problem. Feel free to double it if you want, then you’ll have plenty to keep for yourself and a big dinner’s worth to give away.
These guys are fun to make, seriously. The biggest challenge is in getting the hang of stuffing those shells. There are a couple of different ways to approach this: one is by holding a shell in one hand and spooning the filling in with the other. This can be quite messy and result in a shell or two landing on the floor. It’s easier for me to lay the shell down on the cutting board, pry it open, and then drop the filling inside. Each shell will take about 2 tablespoons of filling, so go for it – the more the merrier. If it looks messy, no worries. Nobody will ever know – or care for that matter. I like to drizzle mine with Basil Oil and fresh herbs, but if you don’t happen to have an of that laying around never fear. Olive oil works really well as a stand in for the basil oil, and you can skip the herbs altogether.
I use fresh spinach that’s been sautéed until softened, but if you’d rather just use frozen, chopped spinach, that’s fine too. Just make sure you squeeze as much of the liquid out of it as you can. Another little trick I like to do is spoon the sauce onto the bottom of the baking dish instead of all over the pasta shells, that way they retain their shape better and taste creamier. I also like to make sure plenty of the grated mozzarella or parmesan makes it’s way down into the marinara sauce, just because cheese belongs everywhere possible in life.
And there we have it for this week, my friends. I hope you are all well and safe. The happiest of Mother’s Days to all moms, or the very special people out there that fill in for moms who can’t be with us.
Thank you so much for reading today!! And I’d love to hear from you – so please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments, questions, or suggestions. I promise to answer each and every note you send. xoxoxoxo
- FOR THE FILLING
- 1, 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach
- Approximately 2 teaspoons of olive or any neutral oil
- 16 ounces of ricotta cheese (Note: Please buy the good stuff for this recipe – look for products with no additives or fillers or your end result will taste gritty, and that is not a good outcome. I buy Belgioso and it’s just right).
- 16 ounces of cottage cheese - either low fat or full fat
- 1 egg
- 1 cup grated parmesan or other cheese blend of your choice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- FOR THE SAUCE
- 1, 32 ounce can crushed tomatoes (Note: if you have a favorite marinara sauce from a jar – I’d say go for it and skip the sauce-making exercise)
- Approximately 3 tablespoons of the Italian herb blend of your choice – think oregano, marjoram, thyme, etc. I usually shy away from dried basil since it doesn’t taste like anything close to the real thing, but if you’ve got some fresh basil hanging around it would be good to add to the sauce right before you’re ready to take if off the stove.
- Crushed garlic to taste – probably start with one clove
- Note: Once you get this sauce going on the stove and taste it, you might find it’s too acidic for you – which is often the case to me. You can gradually sweeten the sauce to your liking with any of the following: Honey, agave, sugar, or grated carrot that is cooked into the sauce until softened.
- FOR THE PASTA
- ½ of a 1-pound package of Large Pasta Shells (this usually equals about 23 or more shells), cooked using package directions, drained and rinsed with cold water. If you aren’t using right away toss the shells with a little olive oil to prevent sticking.
- EXTRA CHEESE
- Up to you, but around 2 cups of grated mozzarella is a nice addition. Also, extra parmesan of other hard cheese is also good for sprinkling just before you pop this into the oven.
- FOR THE FILLING
- Heat the oil in a large skillet until shimmering. Add the spinach by handfuls, season with a little salt, and stir around until the spinach has wilted. Add the next handful and repeat, and so on until all of the spinach is wilted. Set aside to cool. Once the spinach has cooled, grab some out by the handful and squeeze the daylights out of it as hard as you can. The goal here is to remove every drop of moisture possible. When you’ve finished that project, lay all of the spinach out on a cutting board and roughly chop with a big knife. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, egg, and grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Add about ¾ of a cup of the reserved spinach (if you have any more spinach than that, you can either toss it in if you are a spinach lover, or you can reserve for another use).
- FOR THE SAUCE
- In a medium saucepan, combine the crushed tomatoes, herbs, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook until simmering, and taste. If you feel like the sauce needs to be sweetened, check out the list of options above in the Ingredients section, and go from there.
- This sauce is pretty much good to go after it tastes good to you. You can simmer on the stove for longer if you want, or just go for it.
- TO ASSEMBLE AND BAKE
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Spray a 13x9 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Spoon the tomato sauce into the bottom of the dish.
- Fill each pasta shell generously with the ricotta mixture – this usually ends up being about 2 tablespoons per shell. It might seem a little awkward at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. You can either hold the shell in one hand and maneuver the filling in with a spoon, or you can lay the shell on your cutting board and fill it while you’ve got it laying down which might be easier.
- As you fill each shell, lay them down right into the sauce. Feel free to snuggle them in pretty close to each other, and if you happen to have any left over, just pop them into a pie pan or other smaller plate.
- Once all of your shells are filled, sprinkle the tops with mozzarella cheese and/or parmesan cheese.
- Bake until the filling is set and the sauce is bubbling, which will probably take around 30 minutes.
- Dig in!!
- PS. If you’d like to make this to deliver to a friend or loved one, you can assemble the whole works and provide the directions to bake until set. For even less effort on the recipients’ part, you can bake this ahead of time, chill, and deliver. Just leave instructions to reheat until heated through.