It is no secret that we are a carb-loving family. Good, homemade bread and simple pasta dishes are always topping the list of favorite foods at my house. No matter what, every time that I ask, “what should I make for dinner?” the answer I get from everybody is very often, “pasta!”
Stuffing these shells with spinach and ricotta came about from an effort to replace the meat in this classic Italian-American dish with a healthier filling and still enjoy a hearty meal satisfying meal. Strangely enough, I had never made vegetarian stuffed shells before. The filling for the shells is quite easy: sautéed garlic and spinach is mixed with Ricotta and Mozzarella, then stuffed into jumbo pasta shells that are partially cooked. A thin layer of marinara sauce goes on top and the whole thing is baked until the cheese is melted and the top is browned, bubbly and delicious.
If you are in a rush, you can use your favorite store-bought marinara sauce, but homemade will make this dish even better. Even more important than the sauce, however, is the one ingredient that can make a huge difference in this simple dish: the Ricotta (I like to use the “Calabro” brand). I have included step-by-step photos for this recipe, so you can see how really simple the whole process is. I often make the marinara sauce ahead of time (and save half of it for pizza night), so all you have to do is make the filling, stuff the shells and bake it. This stuffed shells with spinach and Ricotta, along side a big mixed salad, is a good candidate for a Saturday night family meal!
- 20 jumbo pasta shells
- 1 TBSP. extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 8 oz. baby spinach, chopped
- 8 oz. good quality Ricotta cheese
- 12 oz. Mozzarella cheese, grated, divided
- 3 oz. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated, divided
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- pinch of nutmeg
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 TBSP. fresh basil, minced
- --- sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1½ cups marinara sauce (preferably homemade)
- For the Marinara Sauce:
- 28 oz. whole tomatoes, San Marzano style
- 4 TBSP. extra virgin olive oil
- 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
- ½ tsp. dried oregano
- 2 fresh basil leaves
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and then add one tablespoon of salt. Add 20 jumbo pasta shells and cook until al dente, or about 6 minutes. Drain well, return to the pot and then toss with a little olive oil so they do not stick.
- In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sauté the 3 cloves of garlic until just soft. Add the spinach and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of water. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, tossing occasionally, until just wilted. Remove the cover of the skillet and let the spinach and garlic cool. Squeeze the spinach gently to remove any excess moisture and transfer it to a large bowl.
- Drain the ricotta well and add it to the bowl with the drained spinach and garlic, along with 8 oz. of the Mozzarella, half of the Parmigiano Reggiano, the egg, nutmeg, oregano and basil. Season the mixture to taste with some salt and pepper.
- For the Marinara sauce crush the tomatoes with your hands and set aside. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil and then the 6 cloves of garlic. Sauté until soft and light brown and then add the tomatoes. Add one cup of water to the tomato can and swirl it around to get all the tomato juices. Add that to the skillet along with the next four ingredients and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thickened. Measure out 1½ cups for the recipe and reserve the rest for another use (like pizza.)
- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Spread a few spoonfuls of marinara sauce over the bottom of a shallow baking dish large enough to hold the shells in a single layer (a 10” x 6” x 2” baking dish was used for this recipe). Fill each shell with some of the spinach mixture and arrange in the dish. Pour remaining marinara sauce over and around the stuffed shells and top with the remaining Mozzarella cheese and the rest of the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
- Cover with foil and bake until hot throughout, about 20 to 25 minutes, then uncover and continue baking until the top is golden brown, about 10 minutes more. If you want the top to crisp even a bit more, place it under the broiler for 30 seconds. Serve with extra Parmigiano-Reggiano and some finely minced parsley.
Step by Step Instructions: