Friday, April 3, 2009

Sausage, Spinach And Ricotta Stuffed Shells

Poor Kris had his birthday last week, smack in the middle of a work hurricane. Our original plan of a night out raising hell with friends was reduced to a night at home, enjoying a home made meal. I was at least thankful I got to sneak out of work early to make him dinner and a homemade ice cream cake, which was the only thing he really wanted.

I got this stuffed shells recipe from a wonderful blog called Simply Recipes. I tweaked it a little, adding nutmeg, lemon zest (shocker, I know), and red pepper flakes, but it's a truly great recipe, and one you can make in two baking dishes, freezing one to have later.

1 (12 oz) box jumbo pasta shells
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
1 lb sweet Italian sausage, broken up and casings removed
1 Tbsp minced garlic
1 large egg
1 (16 oz) tub part skim ricotta
1 (10 oz) box frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry, and chopped further
1 1/4 cups grated Pecorino (or Parmesan - I like the tang of the Pecorino)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, plus a handful of whole leaves
1/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
zest of 1 small lemon
pinch red pepper flakes (or 2)
good grating of fresh nutmeg
2 (28 oz) cans whole, peeled Italian tomatoes
2 additional pinches salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add a hefty pinch of sea or kosher salt, and cook the shells for 6-7 minutes, just until al dente, or they will be too soft and mushy to handle. Drain and transfer to an oil or Pam-sprayed baking tray and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, and cook until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the sausage, breaking it up further with your wooden spoon. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, and continue cooking the mixture, until the sausage is cooked through and no pink remains - about 5-7 more minutes. Remove pan from heat and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, beat the egg slightly in a large bowl. Mix in the ricotta, chopped spinach, 1/2 cup of the Pecorino (or Parmesan) cheese, tablespoon of the basil, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and nutmeg. Using a slotted spoon, add the cooked onions/garlic/sausage, straining as much oil out of it as possible with each ladle. Stir in just until incorporated - you don't want to over mix your stuffing.

Prepare 2 9x9 baking dishes by spraying them with nonstick spray and turn oven on to 375.

While the oven heats, break up the whole, peeled tomatoes carefully with your hands (a smarter way of doing this is with kitchen sheers, snipping the tomatoes inside the cans - but I like the feeling of squishing them with my hands.) Divide the broken up tomatoes between the prepared baking dishes, making a bed for the shells. Sprinkle over evenly a small pinch of salt and pepper. Add an additional couple tablespoons of tomato juice if necessary to the trays - you'll need a little bit of liquid there to help them along while they bake and prevent burning.

Stuff each shell with the ricotta/sausage filling - filling them well but not overflowing them - they should be happily 'full.'

Lay them in the prepared dishes, not overcrowding (about 1/2 inch in between one another.) (At this point - you can also set one tray aside, cover well, and freeze it for later use.) Spread each tray evenly with the remaining cheese, cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil, transferring dishes to upper rack of oven, raise heat to 400 and bake another 5 or so minutes, until tops have begun to turn golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cool and set for five minutes before serving. Sprinkle with the remaining basil leaves before doing so.

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