Stuffed shells are the perfect pasta to make at home for a family-style meal. In the 1980’s, stuffed shells were all the rage and Americans were busy stuffing their pasta with cheeses, meats and vegetables of all sorts. The traditional stuffed shells are usually filled with ricotta cheese, as I did here, but I also added fresh spinach and a few tablespoons of pesto sauce for an herbal touch.
Stuffed shells are relatively easy to put together and you can always use frozen, defrosted spinach and store-bought pesto, for an even quicker weeknight meal. The marinara is a simple preparation of Italian sausage, lots of garlic and some canned tomatoes. The flavors really come alive when the shells are combined with the sauce, topped with a dusting of Parmesan and then baked hot in the oven.
You can make this a day ahead and store it in the refrigerator, to be baked the following day. I like to serve my Spinach Ricotta Stuffed Shells with Sausage Marinara with a fresh mixed green salad and some garlic bread.
2 pounds fresh baby spinach or 1 pound frozen spinach, defrosted
1 box jumbo pasta shells
1 pound Italian sausage – pork or turkey, casings removed
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14 ounce can fire roasted diced tomatoes
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 cup white wine or chicken broth
2 teaspoons dry Italian seasoning, or a combination of oregano, basil and thyme
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 heaping tablespoons of pesto sauce, homemade or store bought
1/4 cup parmesan + 1/3 cup more for topping
2/3 cup diced fresh mozzarella
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large saute pan, add 1 tablespoons of olive oil and the fresh spinach over medium heat. Cook the spinach for 4 minutes until it is completely wilted. Sprinkle the spinach with salt and pepper and place it in a bowl to cool. If you are using frozen spinach, skip this step.
2. Boil 15-18 pasta shells in a large stock pot for 10 minutes. Drain the shells and reserve the remaining for another meal. The shells should be ultra al dente.
3. Place the cooled or defrosted spinach in a kitchen towel and wind it up to squeeze out any excess water. Do this step several times to get the spinach as dry as possible. Place the spinach on a cutting board and chop finely. Reserve the spinach for later.
4. In a large skillet or the same skillet you sauteed the spinach, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the sausage over medium heat. Cook the sausage for about 4 minutes while breaking it apart with a wooden spoon. Add the garlic and continue to cook the meat mixture for 2 minutes.
5. Then, add the tomatoes, tomato paste and wine and stir to combine, while continuing to cook for 3 minutes.
6. Next, add the Italian seasoning and stir. Cook the sauce for 4 minutes or until the liquid is reduced then, turn off the heat. Let the sauce cool, while you stuff your shells.
7. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, spinach and pesto sauce and stir. Next, add the egg, parmesan cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and diced mozzarella cheese to the mixture and stir again.
8. Using a teaspoon, stuff the shells with the ricotta mixture and place in a oven-safe baking dish drizzled with olive oil.
9. Spoon the sausage marinara over the shells and sprinkle the entire dish with the remaining parmesan cheese.
10. Cover the dish with foil and place it on a sheetpan to bake in the oven for 45 minutes. Then, remove the foil and continue to bake for 25 more minutes or until the top is lightly golden brown.
11. Remove the shells from the oven and let cool for 5-8 minutes before serving. Scoop up a few shells onto each plate and serve. Enjoy!