In addition to being somewhat adorable, these little guys make a versatile dinner (you can add all sorts of veggies or cheese to the fillings - spinach, artichokes or sun-dried tomatoes are a good place to start, though I have a crazy urge to add crumbled bacon to the next batch!) and they're great for giving away since they can be made up to a few days ahead of time, refrigerated, and then popped into the oven when needed.
Before you ask, I did make my own sauce this time (and you can, too - it's easy and much healthier!) but this will also work with store-bought sauce for the time- or tomato-challenged. I also experimented with a few different fillings - mostly based on what I had on hand - but I think I've come up with a good basic version. Where you take it from here is entirely up to you!
Three Cheese Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce
2 14-ounce cans crushed red tomatoes
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or 3/4 teaspoon fine grain salt)
4-5 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
Seasonings, to taste (I added basil and oregano, but the possibilities are endless!)
For Cheese Filling:
16 ounces ricotta or cottage cheese
1 egg, beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (or 1 clove garlic, very finely chopped)
1/2 cup cooked spinach, well drained
1 cup (about 5 ounces) grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Seasonings, as desired
1 box Jumbo dried pasta shells (about 30 shells)
Preheat oven to 350°F, and oil a 13x9-inch baking pan or casserole dish. Set aside. Fill a large saucepan with water, add a generous pinch of salt, and bring to a boil.
To make the sauce, heat the olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt and garlic in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute briefly, taking care not to brown the garlic (about 1 minute, or so). Add the tomatoes, stirring well, and bring to a gentle simmer. You can allow it to cook down a little if your sauce is watery, otherwise 4-5 minutes should be enough. Taste carefully and seasonings or salt as desired. Remove from heat and set aside. Allow to cool.
Make the filling by combining the cheese (either ricotta or cottage cheese), egg, salt, and garlic powder in a large mixing bowl. Press spinach with a napkin or paper towel to dry thoroughly before adding. Stir in the mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, and add seasonings as desired. Set aside.
Cook the pasta in the large pot of water, according to the package directions. It's important that the pasta be cooked al dente (if it's too soft, it will tear during filling), so you may wish to take a minute or so off of the minimum cooking time. Keep an eye on the shells to check doneness and be sure to stir occasionally to keep shells from sticking to the bottom of the pan (this might also cause them to tear). Don't worry if a few shells get broken - I've added extras to the recipe to account for this! Drain and allow shells to cool until they can be handled safely and comfortably.
Meanwhile, spread enough tomato sauce across the bottom of the prepared baking dish to just cover it - about 1/3 of the sauce should suffice. Fill the shells gently by hand, taking care not to overstuff with cheese mixture - the edges of the shell should just touch when closed. Arrange in a single layer in the dish (there will be extra shells, which can be baked in individual ramekins or saved for another meal). Spread remaining sauce evenly over the shells - a small sprinkling of parmesan at this point makes them extra-nice - and cover with foil. Bake for 30 minutes, covered, then uncover and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until shells are heated through. Serve hot, with something green and tasty - and, perhaps, a few generous slabs of crusty garlic bread!
A few notes: 'Arrabbiata' is the Italian word for 'angry,' so these are technically Three Cheese Stuffed Shells with Angry Sauce! The crushed red pepper in the sauce is the reason for this unusual name, but if you like your sauce a little less 'angry' the spice can be reduced or omitted altogether. I'd encourage you to try at least a little, though, since the heat of the pepper is a good contrast to the cool, cheesy filling.
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