Pasta for lunch, usually curly kinds or other elbow shaped varieties were common in my childhood. That’s what our live-in maid/housekeeper cooked for us, ( my 3 younger siblings and I) often with butter swirled in, plus a smattering of American cheese scattered from above. As an adult I’m still fond of that meal, but too, I’ve grown accustomed to rich Italian meals, meats smothered in red sauces, plus Parmesean and mozzarella cheese bubbling. (Once a week, when the maid had her regular two days off, our family went to an Italian restaurant, regularly, thus the beginning of my love and cooking for Italian food. The other day the maid had off, we ate at our local hamburger joint.) In recent years I was attracted to a recipe I saw in a magazine called “Stuffed Shells”. I thought I could create a yummy meal!
In addition, a while back, while browsing a craft and baking store I bought a Wilton pipping or pastry bag and several metal decorating tips. I thought they would be perfect for all the cake and cookie baking I do. When I began this recipe, I thought I could us this tool for creamy cheeses as well as sweet frostings, and, even mashed potatoes sometimes! I was so pleased about how well it worked and with such ease! This was so much better than using two tablesppoons to stuff the moist cheese filling into the shells. That step would have been akward and time consuming. I love using gadgets that work!
This recipe didn’t call for any meat, onions or garlic, just a simple marinara sauce. But I believe one of the perks of cooking is to change up a recipe, add or subtract something, stamp it, and make it mine! And I did just that, one ingredient at a time, each layer melding together, increasing its savory content. this makes cooking artsy and fun! I had various cheeses in my fridge too for a few weeks, and now was the time to make use of them. Because I often stock my pantry and fridge with extra upplies, buying many on a whim, I did not need to make a special trip to the grocery store; I was ready to begin this luscious recipe!
INGREDIENTS serves 4-6
8-10 ounces jumbo pasta shells
15-20 ounces ricotta cheese, fresh, if possible
1/2 cup Picorino Romano cheese, grated
salt and pepper
8 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated
2 jars, (40oz.) marinara sauce
1 onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp worchestershire sauce
1/2 tsp basil
2 tsp olive oil
12 oz. grated mozzarella cheese, divided
10 ounces of ground beef and pork, or all of one or the other
1 tsp Italian seasoning
1 Cook the pasta shells only halfway in a large pot of salted boiling water. The rest of the cooking will be done in the oven with all the ingredients. Rince and set the shells aside.
2 In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta, Romano and half of the mozzarella cheeses. Grate the cheeses that need it. Stir in the eggs, italian seasoning, and fold in about half of the Parmesean cheese. Add the basil seasoning and salt and pepper. Set aside. Set the oven to 350 degrees.
3 In a frying pan, heat the olive oil, and once warm, add the meat mixture, stirring occasionally until most of the pink coloring is gone. Add the onion and cook on medium-low, stirring occasionally about 3-5 minutes as the onion turns translucent. Turn the heat down, add the garlic and cook another one minute but do not let the garlic burn.
4 Add the marinara sauce, the worchestershire sauce and the Italian seasoning. Cook on low for 5-10 minutes as all ingredients meld, stirring occasionally, adding salt and pepper as needed. if you like, you can thin the sauce slightly with a few tablespoons of chicken, vegetable broth or water.
5 In a 9 x 13 casserole dish, or in a 3 quart casserole dish, begin the layering process. First add several, around 3 or 4 tablespoons of sauce to the bottom of the dish, spread it around evenly.
6 Next, place a metal tip opener, perhaps a forth of an inch wide or a bit larger opening in the bottom of your pastry bag. Push it in gently. You do not need any kind of coupler or other material for this process. Add roughly 4 or 5 tablespoons of the cheese mixture into the bottom of the bag, very close to the tip.
7 Line up 4 or 5 partially cooked shells near your casserole. Gently, but with some pressure, squeeze the filling into each of the shell as you insert the pastry tip about ahalf inch into the opening. This method allows you to get the filling deep into the pocket before it starts squeezing out. Don’t overfill them. You should be adding around 2 tablespoons of filling per shell. Place them, filling side down on top of the sauce. Continue this process placing 5-7 filled shells in 3 or 4 rows, depending on the size of your casserole dish. Don’t pack the shells too tightly next to each other, leave 1/2 inch to 1 inch between each one. Add a few dollops of sauce atop the shells, then a sprinkling of parmasean cheese along with a few scant spoonfuls of mozzzarella cheese. In all, you should have 2 or 3 layers, and close to 27-30 filled shells. Remember to add a bit of parmasean and mozzarella cheese atop the sauce each time, but still save some of each of these cheeses for the last topping.
8 If, you have remaining cheese in the bag and no cooked shells left, you may squirt that small amount randomly on top of the casserole dish. When complete you want a nice combination of sauce and cheeses on top, but do not leave open spaces with just blank shells showing, otherwise they would dry out while you bake.
9 Bake for 30-35 minutes, until hot and bubbly! Cool 5-10 minutes and serve with crusty bread and or a crisp green salad.
Tips and Tweaks:
- In Step 3, when you’re sauteeing the onion and garlic you can add 8 oz. of sliced mushrooms, adding a few minutes to cooking totals. adding a chopped red pepper too to this step would be a good addition.
- leave out the meat for a vegetarian dish.
- To kick up the heat for more spice, add a cut up hot pepper in step 3 or use a fe pinches of cayenne pepper at step 3.
- if your pasta shells have many broken pieces, and you might be running short of well-intacted shells, get creative and piece together some of the pieces as tops or bottoms of the shells. But naturally remember to cook these skraggly pieces with the rest of the pasta shells.