My mom made stuffed shells when I was growing up, and it’s a dish that I’ve made for my family for more than 20 years. It brings back memories of a relaxed Sunday dinner, eating them with a big garden salad and garlic bread.
I have a few recipes that I tend to double when I cook, and this is one of them. I stick one tray in the freezer for a day when making dinner just seems impossible; doing this has saved me headaches more times than I can count.
This is a simple recipe to follow, fairly hard to botch and the kids come back for seconds. I like to add spinach, hence the “Florentine” label, but you can make this without it if it’s not to your taste. Any time I can add an extra vegetable to the plate is a win for me. Using shortcuts like jarred sauce — and getting a fully homemade result — is even better.
This recipe checks all of the boxes and is not too complicated for a weeknight meal. Double the recipe for a large crowd or if you wish to make half and freeze half for a later date.
1 box large pasta shells
1-2 jars store-bought marinara sauce
1 24-ounce container of ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
½ cup Parmesan cheese
1 large egg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 package (about 10-12 oz) frozen spinach, thawed and strained well, or 4 cups of fresh spinach, washed, chopped and sautéed
If you’re using frozen spinach, I suggest letting it thaw in the refrigerator overnight before cooking. Frozen spinach holds a lot of water so you will need to put it in a mesh strainer and really push the water out of it. If you’re using fresh spinach, then prepare and cook it first and let it cool before mixing it into the cheese. Four cups of fresh spinach will cook down to about 1 cup, which is perfect for this recipe.
I like to bake these shells in a 9-inch-by-13-inch rectangular baking dish.
Place your oven rack in the middle and preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. I boil the pasta in a large pot with 1 teaspoon of salt, drain it and immediately rinse it with cold water to stop it from getting too soft.
Don’t overcook the pasta because it gets cooked twice, and it’s important that the cooked shells stay firm and separate for serving. The cooked pasta should be al dente but soft enough that you can stuff the shell without breaking it. When shells overcook, they lose their shape altogether.
While the pasta is cooking, you can mix the ricotta and Parmesan cheese and 1½ cups of the mozzarella cheese with the egg, salt and pepper in a medium-sized bowl. I prefer to grate a bar of Parmesan cheese — it melts better and tastes better than the brands that you purchase pre-grated. It’s also more economical because cheese expands in volume once grated. If you’re using the spinach, mix it in last.
Once the shells are cool enough to touch, you can start to prepare them for baking.
Prepare your baking dish by spreading about 1½ cups of marinara sauce across the bottom. You don’t need to oil the pan.
Stuff each shell with about 2 tablespoons of cheese filling until it is nicely full but not overflowing. The cheese will harden and expand a little bit when baking. I find that a soup-sized tablespoon (flatware, not a measuring spoon) is just the right size for stuffing the shells.
Place each shell seam up until the baking dish is full. You can always squeeze in a few extra, but if you have more than 4 or 5 extras, I recommend using a small pie plate to bake them separately.
I usually get about 20-25 shells into a 9-by-13-inch dish. You will have leftover pasta shells, but because so many crack or break when boiling or when you are handling them, it’s easier to just make the entire box of pasta.
Once the shells are laid out, lightly spoon out some extra marinara sauce over the top (don’t drown them in it) and sprinkle with the remaining half cup of shredded mozzarella cheese. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until bubbling.
Cool for 10 minutes before serving with a garden salad and fresh bread and butter or garlic bread.
I find that a typical person eats 3-4 shells per serving — and they are very filling.
If you are making a portion to freeze, cover it in plastic wrap and freeze it before baking. When you’re ready to make them, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator or on the countertop if you have less time, and bake as directed.
Bless your hands and enjoy! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.