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 filling their pasta with a variety of cheeses, meat and vegetables of all sorts. The traditional stuffed shells are usually filled with ricotta cheese, like in this recipe, but I also added fresh spinach, and a few tablespoons of pesto sauce for flavorful touch.
Stuffed shells are relatively easy to put together and you can always use frozen, defrosted spinach and store-bought pesto, for a faster prep time. The marinara is a simple preparation of Italian chicken sausage, lots of garlic and some canned tomatoes. The flavors really come alive when the shells are topped with the meaty sauce, and chunks of mozzarella, but if you’re a vegetarian, you could leave the chicken sausage out of the sauce.
Also, this is a great make-ahead-meal because you can store it in the refrigerator, to be baked the following day. I like to serve my stuffed shells with a mixed green salad and some garlic bread to complete this old-school-style Italian dinner, Mangia Mangia!
2 pounds fresh baby spinach or 1 pound frozen spinach, defrosted
1 pound box jumbo pasta shells
1 pound Italian chicken sausage, casings removed
3 cloves garlic, minced
14 ounces fire roasted diced tomatoes
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 cup white wine or chicken broth
2 teaspoons dry Italian seasoning
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 heaping tablespoons of pesto sauce, homemade or store bought
1/4 cup parmesan + 1/3 cup more for topping
1 1/2 cups diced fresh mozzarella
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large sauté pan, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and fresh spinach over medium heat. Cook spinach for 4 minutes, until it is completely wilted. Sprinkle spinach with a pinch of salt and pepper, and place it in a bowl to cool. If you are using frozen spinach, skip this step.
2. Boil pasta shells in a large stock pot for 10 minutes, drain. Place cooled or defrosted spinach in a kitchen towel, and twist to remove any excess water. Do this step several times to get spinach as dry as possible. Place spinach on a cutting board and chop finely. Reserve spinach for later.
3. In a large skillet, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sausage and place over medium heat. Cook sausage for about 4 minutes, while breaking apart with a wooden spoon. Add garlic and continue to cook meat mixture for 2 minutes.
4. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and wine and stir to combine. Continue cooking for 3 minutes.
5. In a large bowl, combine ricotta, spinach and pesto sauce and stir. Add 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and half of diced mozzarella cheese to mixture and stir again.
6. Stuff shells with ricotta mixture and place in a oven-safe baking dish drizzled with olive oil. Spoon marinara over shells and sprinkle with remaining parmesan cheese and mozzarella.
7. Cover dish with foil and place on a sheet pan to bake in oven for 40 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for 10 minutes, or until top is lightly golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!