April 8, 2011

Stuffed Shells

I roasted a chicken Thursday night. Upside down. No, it wasn't on purpose. I also tried to make pan gravy from the drippings. With RED wine (I figured wine is wine right? Wrong.) So my chicken, while it had a very moist breast and tasted pretty good considering I put all the herbs and butter on its underside, was a bit of a flop. And the gravy not only separated but was a very unappetizing purplish grey color. Sort of like the color of a 2 or 3 day old bruise. My husband, brave soul that he is, ate it anyway. It did taste OK, just looked awful. Why in the world do I try to cook things I don't usually cook on days when I am frazzled and my pregnant brain has clearly thrown in the towel?
So in an attempt to redeem myself, and because my lovely sister in law asked for my stuffed shells recipe, I am cooking one of my old standbys: stuffed shells. This is a recipe I can be reasonably sure will always turn out well. I don't even actually have a recipe for it in fact. I always just make it sort of the way my parents did. I loosely follow the recipe in The Joy of Cooking for simple cheese filling... but not really. Since I don't have a recipe I never do it exactly the same every time. That is to say, not the same proportions. I always use the same ingredients but sometimes I add more of one kind of cheese or another, or more onion etc. The finished product always turns out yummy and pretty much the same. I made it with no meat tonight since it is Friday but if I were to add meat I would season and brown some ground beef or turkey and add the tomato sauce to it and allow it to heat through. So this is how I did it this time:

1 small onion chopped
2 cloves garlic minced or finely chopped
1 package (10 oz) frozen spinach
1 (or 2) tub (15 oz) ricotta *note* see below
about 24 oz shredded mozzarella cheese *note* see below
about 1/3 to 1/2 ricotta tub of parmesan cheese *note* see below
about 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning or combination of your choice of seasoning.
-I used about 1 teaspoon basil, 1 teaspoon parsley, 1/2 teaspoon oregano, and 1/2 teaspoon thyme
a small dash of nutmeg (start with just a little tiny bit)
1 box (12 oz) large pasta shells
1 egg
1 26 oz jar tomato sauce (could have used another 1/2 jar probably but it was all I had)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 F
Heat a large skillet and add olive oil, onions, and garlic. Cook until onions are just starting to turn translucent. Move the onions and garlic to the sides of the pan then add frozen spinach into the center and turn heat to low. Add salt and pepper. Leave it there for now.

In a big bowl combine ricotta and parmesan cheese and a heaping ricotta tub-ful of mozzarella (*you may want to double these proportions if you are not overly fond of spinach and don't mind having extra filling. More cheese is always good*), italian seasoning, and nutmeg. A note about the nutmeg: start with just a little bit and taste it, if you want more add a tiny bit more and taste again. Repeat until you have the amount you like. I only like just a very subtle hint of nutmeg so I only use a small dash or two.

Check on your spinach. if it is still a frozen block, turn it over and scrape the thawed spinach from the other side. I pretty much just keep doing this till it is all thawed then I cook it for a few more minutes till it just starts to darken and to evaporate any water from the thawing.

While the spinach is cooking start your water to boil to cook the pasta shells.
When the spinach is done just take it off the heat and leave it to cool before adding it to the cheese mixture.

Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. When the spinach is cooled add it to the cheese and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. I usually add a bit more salt at this point if I didn't salt the cheese yet but I made the spinach pretty salty this time so I didn't need it. Now add your egg to the cheese and spinach mixture and mix it in really well. You can make this without egg but the filling doesn't hold together in the shells quite as well. I add the egg last so I can taste the filling and see if it needs more seasoning.

Ok so your filling is ready to go, now about those shells... This is the part that gives me the most trouble and there is no really easy/foolproof way to get the shells cooled off enough to handle with out them all sticking together and ripping. I pretty much just accept that there will be casualties but I always seem to have enough shells in the end so I try not to let it bug me. Anyone have a good use for leftover ripped pasta shells? I have had better success in the past coating them with a little olive oil immediately after draining them but I didn't do that this time. I also was pretty frustrated with my sticky and shredded noodles this time. Anyway, when the shells are cool enough to handle, I use a large spoon (like a table spoon, not the measuring kind though) and spoon a rounded spoonful into each shell. I used to worry about not stuffing them enough and ended up with overstuffed shells and sometimes not enough filling left. So I try to stuff them full but not so full that they won't close together at the opening (does that make sense?). I should have probably taken pictures of this whole process but I had a very rambunctious 2 year old to attend to in the middle of all this and, well, lets face it, a bag of shredded mozzarella only keeps her occupied for so long. Then I sort of smush them all into my baking pan in one layer. In my case this was 2 stoneware oval baking dishes, one was 10 x 8 and one was 9 x 7 but I am sure a 13 x 9 pan would produce neater results. Then I pour my sauce over the top and cover with mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Put it in the middle of the oven and bake for about 40 min until it is bubbling and the cheese reaches your desired level of brown-ness. Voila! Satisfied husband and kiddo!

***A few notes about how I made it this time and how I would change it next time, or What I Think I Usually Do. After eating this last night (and it was yummy!), I realized that I usually about double the amount of cheese mixture in proportion to the spinach. The filling was a little heavy on the spinach which I like but my daughter is not so fond of. Also I had NO LEFTOVERS from the filling and I usually always have leftovers, from which I like to make egg, cheese, and spinach omelets. So next time I would double the cheese proportions but nothing else, maybe throw in a second egg to help it hold together more. Then you would have a bunch of leftover filling. Alternately you could halve the spinach and leave the cheese as it is but then you might not have quite enough filling. Bottom line: when it comes to pasta you can never have too much cheese. :)

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