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If food is a metaphor for a blanket, then cover up with this. Melty, cheesy stuffed pasta shells, smothered in a bright tomato sauce — and, of course, more cheese — are exactly what we need right now. This is a dish that will please everyone, no matter their age, and warm you up when the weather is miserable outside.
It takes a little time to assemble, so consider the process a meditative exercise with comforting results.
Feel free to perfect the presentation, arranging the shells in tidy rows or spirals, if you like. But remember that the shells will be blanketed with sauce and cheese, so there is absolutely no need to be meticulous — unless that’s how you roll.
A meal like this is warming and satisfying in the winter. It’s also practical, because it can be assembled in advance, and the portions can be doubled to feed a crowd. I have provided a simple tomato sauce, which is all you need, but a favorite prepared tomato or marinara sauce can easily stand in.
As for the filling, I will repeat my mantra about choosing ricotta cheese: Always use a high-quality, whole-milk ricotta for best results. You want a creamy, full-flavored cheese, and the skim varieties are thin, watery and often bland or even bitter. In this recipe, I add chopped cooked spinach to the filling. While you can omit the greens altogether, I do champion their addition to the dish; it’s a wonderful way to sneak in a vegetable.
Finally, you will note that I do not parboil the shells, which happily contributes to the ease of making this dish. (This is also how I prefer to make lasagna.) I find that covering the dish with foil while it bakes and extending the cooking time results in the shells being sufficiently cooked to al dente.
Cheesy Baked Stuffed Pasta Shells
Active time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
5 ounces fresh baby spinach (optional)
16 ounces fresh whole-milk ricotta, drained
1/2 fresh mozzarella ball, about 4 ounces, finely chopped
1 large egg
1/4 cup packed finely grated pecorino Romano cheese
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces jumbo pasta shells
1/2 fresh mozzarella ball, about 4 ounces, shredded
1/4 cup finely packed grated Parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese
Make the sauce: Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and saute until soft without coloring, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano and red pepper flakes and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and simmer, partially covered, over medium-low heat for about 20 minutes. Season with the salt. (If using prepared sauce, you will need 28 ounces, or 3 1/2 cups.)
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Make the filling: If using spinach, steam the leaves until wilted. Transfer to a colander and squeeze out all the liquid. Finely chop the spinach. Combine all the filling ingredients, including the spinach if using, in a bowl and mix well.
Spoon 1 cup of the tomato sauce into an 8-by-11-inch baking dish and spread evenly.
Using a teaspoon, carefully stuff the pasta shells with the filling. Arrange the shells side by side, gap-side up, in the dish. If there is any remaining filling, drop dabs of the filling around the shells.
Spoon the remaining sauce around and between the shells. Top with the shredded mozzarella and Parmesan.
Cover the dish with foil and transfer to the oven. Bake for 45 minutes, then remove the foil. Bake for 15 minutes more or until the pasta is al dente and the top is golden in spots. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.