|Stuffed Pasta Shells with Meat Filling|
Sadly, I have been so busy that I haven't cooked for myself in a while. I haven't even thought about cooking. I don't think I've even really been in the kitchen much. I usually procrastinate more actually, so it's pretty wild and even amusing to me that I really have been, you know, responsible.
Alas, old habits die hard. In doing what I do best, I'm going to ignore and avoid the many things I should be doing right now to get back in the groove...
While I was growing up my mother made dinner every single night, rotating between classic weeknight-friendly meals, as well as many of her own chicken or meat dishes. Despite everything she had to do, a wonderful meal was always on stove, in the oven or on the table for us. She rarely relied on many pasta dishes though, therefore I never think to make any or choose to eat any when out to dinner. It doesn't even cross my mind. I do have some lovely pale green spinach linguine and cute little orecchiette pasta in my beloved pantry though (probably because the look of it in a beautiful jar or container completed the aesthetic I was going for in that little nook of special supplies, let's be honest) and have purchased homemade varieties thinking that I should/would incorporate it into my repertoire, but I never do. Pierogies are usually the go-to for a doughy, pasta type meal, sort of the ravioli/dumpling/empanada of eastern Europe, and that's about it.
This year though, after the turkey and leftovers were long gone, my mother and I were in the mood for something not usually found on either of our regular menus, in regards to both ingredients and taste. We definitely weren't looking for complicated or fussy, but instead warm and comforting, even an old favorite we'd completely forgotten about. Using the basic framework of a recipe created by restaurateur/author/Iron Chef judge Donatella Arpaia, my mother ended up throwing together a dish that completely hit the spot. (I say my mother, too, because all I did the entire time was another thing I do best, which is talk. It was a new audience, I couldn't help myself. Wait, I grated some cheese- while talking- maybe.) Simple and hearty, served with just a salad and glass of wine, it was very satisfying, especially with the addition of sausage in the filling.
This recipe makes plenty, so it would be perfect for a crowd, or simply great for dinner one night with leftovers all week long, depending on the portions. Due to the various steps it may take a while to prepare (almost an hour), but the time is necessary in order to cook down and enhance the individual flavors of the beef and garlic, as well as the tomatoes, before their time in the oven. Each ingredient really comes to life as they are prepared in separate steps, which also provides distinct layers of taste, even after the mixtures begin to mingle together in their pockety little home while cooking.
Stuffed Pasta Shells with Sausage
*12 oz. dried jumbo pasta shells
*3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
*1 1/2 lb. lean ground beef
*1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed (more or less, depending on your preference)
*1/2 28 oz. can peeled San Marzano tomatoes
*2 26 oz. jars of pasta sauce (any brand will do, but we like the arribiata flavor of the Via Roma brand, not only for the packaging design and shelf impact with those great narrative pictures, either)
*1 15 oz. carton whole-milk ricotta cheese
*1 1/3 cup grated or shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
*1/2 tsp. dried parsley or 1 tsp. mixed dried herbs (a few shakes each of parsley and Penzeys Pasta Sprinkle worked well)
*salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350º. Lightly oil two 13x9 baking dishes.
Bring a large pot of water to boiling. Add a generous amount of salt, maybe 1 Tbsp. Add the pasta shells and cook until tender, about 4-5 minutes. Drain and put aside in a dish or bowl.*
In a large skillet, heat about 1 Tbsp. of oil over medium heat. Add the beef and one peeled and crushed clove of garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Cook and stir until no pink remains, about 7 minutes. Transfer beef to a bowl and set aside.
Wipe down skillet and combine about 2 Tbsp. olive oil, (we omitted garlic here, but use 1 or more peeled and crushed garlic clove if you'd like), half the can of undrained tomatoes and 1 entire jar of pasta sauce and 2/3 of the second jar, over low heat. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil for 15-20 minutes until the mixture is a bit thicker. Break up the tomatoes with a spoon as you stir.
Take the tomato mixture off the stove and stir 1 1/2 cups of it into the cooked beef, along with the ricotta, all of the herbs, and 2/3 cup of the Parmigiano cheese. Mix until well combined. Spoon the remaining 1 1/2 cups of tomato mixture into the bottom of the prepared baking dishes.
Begin filling each pasta shell with an appropriate amount of meat mixture and arrange in the baking dishes. Spoon any remaining filling on top of the filled shells and scatter the remaining grated or shredded cheese on top (we are not fond of too much sauce, but did decide to add the remaining tomato sauce on top, as well).
Bake for 30 minutes, or until filling is heated through and the top is golden brown.
*If you feel the shells may stick together allow them to cool on a dish in a single layer. Our cooked shells were fine while cooling in a bowl though; separating them to stuff was not a problem.