Recipe: Stuffed Pasta Shells with Ricotta, Mint and Feta

Aargh!  Here I am, with the best intentions in the world about posting lots of exciting things, and I can’t, because I don’t have time, because I’m too busy cooking!  Well, and singing.  To give you a brief glimpse of the current craziness: Friday night was singing lesson and making vegan truffles for a birthday yesterday, yesterday I was out all day at said birthday, today was choir, a birthday dinner for a different set of people, practicing cake decorating, and bonus practice cupcakes erupting all over my oven (moral of the story: do not forget to put the eggs in the cupcakes.  It’s fine if they weren’t supposed to have eggs in the first place, but if they were, it turns out that one of the things eggs do is prevent bicarb-fueled cake eruptions), tomorrow is another singing lesson, Tuesday is a dinner party, Wednesday will be last minute cake experiments for the wedding cake I am making for Sunday, Thursday is choir, Friday is singing practice and baking wedding cakes, Saturday is baking more wedding cakes and decorating them, and Sunday is a wedding.

So you see, even typing very fast, that doesn’t leave much room for blogging.  Especially when the cakes you were hoping to blog about erupted all over your oven…

So here’s a random recipe I started writing down for you months ago and then forgot about completely and never came back to.  It’s still good, though.  It started off Italian in feel, but sort of started sidling shiftily in the direction of Greece with the herbs and feta.  Feta is very shifty that way.  Still, cultural identity issues aside, it tasted pretty good and was well worth making.  And finally I have something to do with those giant pasta shells that ogle me so enticingly from the supermarket shelves and then sit in my pantry for months doing nothing…

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500 g frozen spinach
olive oil
5 cloves garlic
400g tinned tomatoes (chopped)
750 ml passata
1/2 cup water
1 small bunch basil
500 g ricotta (preferably fairly solid ricotta from a deli, not the smooth stuff in a tub)
150 g feta cheese
2 eggs
a large handful fresh mint
salt, pepper
375 g giant pasta shells
1/4 cup parmesan, approximately
1/4 cup breadcrumbs, fresh if possible

 

Now what will you do with it?

First, start your spinach defrosting, either overnight in the fridge or in the microwave.

Now make the sauce.  This is dead easy – heat the olive oil in a smallish saucepan, crush the garlic and stir it around until it smells garlicky, then add the tinned tomatoes, water and passata.  Yes, it’s very liquid.  This is because you are going to need the liquid to help cook the pasta shells later.  Lower the heat, and let it all simmer for 10-20 minutes.  Chop the basil fairly finely and stir it in.  That’s it!

Your filling is just as easy – easier, in fact, because you don’t even have the possibility of burning it.  Though you can always slice your fingers, of course.  I do this fairly regularly, but you don’t have to.  Put the ricotta in a bowl and crumble in the feta.  Chop the mint and stir it in.  If the spinach is not chopped, chop it too, and stir it in along with the eggs until the mixture is pretty well amalgamated, much like certain Victorian Universities in the 1980s.  No, I don’t know where that came from either.  Season with salt and pepper.

Now it’s time to play with your pasta shells, and this is the part where I cannot wholly advise you, because depending on the brand and freshness, you may need to cook them to al-dente before stuffing them, or you may be able to get away with just sitting them in the sauce to cook.  It’s worth checking the packet to see if there is a recipe – even though it won’t be exactly the recipe you are using, it should give you a hint of whether this is a pasta that cooks fully in a wet sauce or one that needs a bit of help.  If you are unable to tell, it might be best to err on the side of cooking the pasta first – I didn’t, and the shells took *forever* to cook, and were still a little on the chewy side.

Now would also be a good time to pre-heat the oven, incidentally.  180°C, please.

Anyway, if you par-boiled the pasta, drain it and separate out all the shells.  Tossing them with a smidge of olive oil will help them not to stick together, so that’s probably a good idea.  Let them cool a bit, too, because you also don’t need to burn your fingers.  And if you do need to burn your fingers, you might as well make toffee, because that’s a much more effective method in my experience.  But that’s another story.  This is a very distracted recipe, sorry.  I blame the Olympics – I have to keep running out to the living room to see if they are actually showing the team rhythmic gymnastics event (they aren’t), and then I lose my train of thought, not that it was much of a train in the first place.  More of a light rail, really.

Right, back to the recipe.  Pour about 80% of the tomato sauce into a nice, flattish casserole dish that will hold the pasta shells in a single layer.  Don’t you love the way I say that in an airy fashion that implies that of course you know *just* how much space those pasta shells will need?  The trouble is, I just can’t remember which dish I used now.  This is a terrible recipe.  OK, I’m pretty sure it was a dish that is about 20 by 30cm, but your best indicator, if you find it hard to translate from looking at a bunch of pasta shells in a colander to a baking tin, is that the sauce should fill it to the depth of about an inch or a little less.

Shells, ready to go into the oven.  I apologise for the terrible photography, incidentally..

Stuff the pasta shells.  You could use a spoon, but it’s more fun to use your fingers, and it’s also much easier to get the filling into the dodgy little corners.  Place them fairly close together in the sauce.  Drizzle the rest of the sauce over the top.  Mix together the breadcrumbs and parmesan and sprinkle over the shells.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the pasta shells are cooked and the crumbs and parmesan are nicely golden.  Serve with a salad.  Yum!

Variations

Well, these are clearly vegetarian and nut-free already, and they are fairly low-GI.  As for the rest… um.  I’ve never seen gluten-free pasta shells, so I’m going to assume they are not readily available.  What you could do is make either canneloni or lasagne with gluten-free pasta (I would use two tins of tomatoes instead of one tin and passata for the tomato sauce, and alternate tomato sauce, pasta sheet, ricotta filling, pasta sheet, and so forth until everything is used up).  You could also do tricksy things with polenta in layers with these fillings – I’ve seen some really nice polenta-ish lasagnes.  Again, I’d use a thicker tomato sauce and would probably do a layer of polenta (either just pouring layers in or setting them and cutting them into interesting shapes if you are feeling *really* classy), one of tomato sauce, another of polenta, one of the cheesy filling, and a final layer of polenta with parmesan sprinkled over the top, and then bake it.

Once you take out the gluten, incidentally, you will be fairly low-fructose too, if I understand correctly.

Getting rid of the dairy or egg is harder, and may be impossible while keeping the character of the recipe.  The Post-Punk Kitchen girls have recipes for tofu and cashew ricotta in their Veganomicon book which I think might work quite well here (heh, I just found the recipe for it here, and it even says it’s awesome for stuffed shells!).  Feta is harder to replace, flavour-wise; I’d be inclined to add toasted pine-nuts, roasted capsicums, olives, or some other strongly-flavoured ingredient to replace it.  If you want to go Sicilian, a combination of pine-nuts and currants would work well, I think, but do add a bit more salt in that case.

Other than these diet-based changes, you can vary the flavours in this pretty much endlessly, of course (start with the ideas for the vegan shells above).  You can also use just about any green to replace the frozen spinach, so long as the cooked weight is about the same.  It’s a pretty forgiving recipe…

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One response to “Recipe: Stuffed Pasta Shells with Ricotta, Mint and Feta

  1. Pingback: Recipe: Stuffed Pasta Shells with Ricotta, Mint and Feta | Cate's Cates – Fine Food Recipes

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