Tony writes: The cooking mysteries that occupy me tend to come from food memories of my youth. Generally it’s the good ones I’m trying to recreate, though occasionally, there is something so bad from my younger years that it causes me to wonder. Like stuffed shells. Not that they were ever as horrible as liver and onions, but I remember shells being consistently bad no matter the venue nor who made them: pasta filled with a glop of plain ricotta and coated with jarred tomato sauce or something similarly insipid. And here’s the thing: to this day, I’m still not sure why nobody could ever do any better. Stuffing things – pasta, chicken breasts, olives, pizza crusts, whatever – normally produces wonderful results. So why couldn’t stuffing work with a pairing as good-sounding as pasta, cheese, and sauce?
I had a middle-school flashback about a month ago and ever since, I’ve become obsessed with getting stuffed shells right. A handful of tests culminated with Easter dinner, at which time the shells fulfilled all the promise that pasta and ricotta could ever hope for. Since a couple of you asked, I thought I would outline my basic stuffed shell technique and maybe you, too, could get past the stuffed shell trials of your youth.
The plan: Two basic elements can help make stuffed shells special: the first is the stuffing, which should be interesting (ie: more than just cheese), and the second is the sauce, which should not only c0mplement the shells, but also stand out. To achieve the former, I’m fine with using ricotta as a base, but I like to embellish it; it can be something as simple as chopped fresh herbs or as involved as the sauteed spinach and mushrooms in this version, as long as it enhances the sweet but ever-plain monotony of ricotta. Secondly, the sauce should have something to it: herbs, spice, heat, anything. Here are my 3 basic shell steps:
1. Make the mushroom and spinach filling: Saute 1 smashed garlic clove with a splash of olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until the garlic sizzles steadily and becomes fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add about 10 oz. mix of thinly sliced mushrooms (I went with shiitakes, oyster, and cremini), sprinkle with kosher salt, and cook, without touching, until the mushrooms start to brown, about 2 minutes. Cook, tossing, for another minute or so until the mushrooms just start to soften. Stir in 8 oz. baby spinach (convenient because it doesn’t need to be washed), sprinkle with salt, and cook, tossing, until it just wilts, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Press out (and pour off) any excess moisture (to keep the mixture from becoming watery in the oven), discard the garlic cloves and mash with 1 lb whole milk ricotta, some chopped fresh herbs (thyme for me), and plenty of salt and pepper to taste.
2. Make the sauce and boil the shells: Cooking the shells is easy: about 9 minutes, strain, and then cool under running water. I like Barilla for a brand: good texture, durable, affordable, etc… While the pasta (1 box) is cooking, make a quick sauce. I like bolstering the earthiness of the mushrooms and spinach with a meaty sauce: it could be anything, though my Easter triumph came with sauteed sausage. To make the sauce, saute 2 smashed garlic cloves with a splash of olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until the garlic sizzles steadily and becomes fragrant, about 2 minutes. Discard the garlic (it’s already done its flavoring thing) and add a good sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes and some crumbled Italian sausage (removed from the casing) and cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until the sausage browns. Add a 28-oz can whole tomatoes (and their juices) and a sprinkling of whatever fresh herb you used for the ricotta filling (thyme?). Break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce the sauce to a gentle simmer, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sausage cooks through and enriches the sauce, about 30 minutes. Season generously with S+P to taste.
Assemble and bake: Heat the oven to 425F. Grease a 9×13 baking dish and then spread an even layer of sauce on the bottom of the pan. Using a small spoon, fill the shells with the ricotta/spinach mixture; don’t overfill them – you should be able to fold the shells back over the cheese. Set the stuffed shell in the baking dish and repeat with the remaining cheese and pasta; you’ll get about 1 1/2 layers. Top with the sauce, spreading it even and then top with some grated Parmigiano and some thin slices of fresh mozzarella. Note: you can do this assembly up to 3 days ahead. Bake the pasta until the shells and cheese brown and the filling and sauce bubble around the edges of the baking dish, 25 minutes. Serve with something green and enjoy.