Sunday, April 17, 2011

Stuffed Shells

These stuffed shells - or pretty close, at least - are the first meal I ever cooked for my girlfriend Kristin.  It was quite early on in our relationship, and I decided that I wanted to cook something impressive.  Stuffed shells can be pretty boring - especially if they're just stuffed with ricotta.  I searched the internet for a while for inspiration, and put together this recipe.  I found out after the fact that Kristin isn't generally a big fan of stuffed shells.  These, we both devoured quite happily.

You'll need some shells, of course.  A 12 oz box will do the trick.  Two pounds of beef - I usually like 85/15 for the ideal combination of flavor and general lack of grease.  In this case, I used a pound of 90/10 and a pound of 80/20.  We'll fill with the beef, some pasta sauce, a package of frozen, chopped spinach, 8 ounces of cream cheese, two eggs for binder, and fresh basil, oregano, minced garlic for flavor.  Parmesan and asiago cheeses round out the mix.  On top of it all goes the rest of the pasta sauce and a bit of mozzarella cheese.

To get started, put some water on to boil for the shells.  Also dig out a whole mess of baking dishes - this makes a lot.  I end up using two pie pans and an 8"x11" baking dish.  You can halve the recipe if you want, but then you'll have half a box of jumbo shells floating around, and that's just awkward.  Plan to eat these for several days, or share them with somebody.  Once you taste them, though, you'll be disinclined to share.

Cook your pasta shells to al dente.  Absolutely, positively don't let them overcook.  You want them plenty firm so they'll stand up to the filling and baking.

Also, preheat the oven to 350.

Fresh basil is key, here.  I adore basil - it's probably my single favorite spice.  Spring for some nice, fresh stuff.  You can really tell the difference in this dish, and I use a lot of it.  No need for a fancy chiffonade here, just give it a rough chop.

In a large skillet, combine the beef with your basil and garlic.  Squeeze as much water as you can out of the frozen spinach - don't be a wimp, just use your hands.  Add that to the mix, along with two beaten eggs.  Season with oregano, salt, and pepper.  Use plenty of basil, oregano, garlic, and pepper, but go easy on the salt.  Cook the mixture in the skillet until all of the beef is nicely browned.

In a large (large!) mixing bowl, combine your softened cream cheese with a few tablespoons each of grated Parmesan and Asiago cheese.  With these on the bottom of the bowl, pour the mixture from the skillet into the mixing bowl.  The heat from the beef mixture will get the cheese melting nicely.  Mix well, and add about a cup of pasta sauce.

Taste this magical mixture and adjust seasonings as needed.  You may also need a bit more pasta sauce.  You'll want it to look about like this:

I could eat this stuff with a spoon.  Or without a spoon.  But it's better in shells, and I'm not sure Kristin would have kept dating me if I just handed her a bowl of meat that first time I cooked for her.

Once the shells are done, it's time to start filling.  This is an awkward process.  Who decided shells were the right shape to fill, anyway?  In any case, I find that the maneuver in the picture just above works best for me.  Push the shell open with two fingers, and slip a nice large spoonful of filling in there.  Expect to get messy.

You want them about this full.

 Lay the shells in your greased baking dishes - pie pans, in my case.  Overlap isn't a big problem, here.

Cover with some of your remaining pasta sauce.  Not too much - the filling should have plenty of moisture to it.  Throw these into your 350 degree oven for 10 minutes.

Check on your shells after 10 minutes.  They'll smell delicious, but not be quite done, yet.  Now is the time to cover them with your mozzarella (or other Italian-blend) cheese.  Again, not too much.  There's plenty of cheese in the filling already, so the mozzarella is really just the icing on the cake.

Back into the oven they go.  They should be done after another 5-10 minutes.  Check after 5, and keep an eye on them after that.  Once the cheese is nicely melted and the filling bubbly, your shells are ready!

Serve immediately alongside a tossed salad.

Recipe: Stuffed Shells

Prep Time: 5-10 minutes   |   Cook Time: 30-40 minutes   |   Difficulty: Medium   |   Servings: 8-10.

  • 1 package (12 oz) jumbo pasta shells
  • 2 pounds Ground Beef
  • 1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 2 Eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 8 ounce package Cream Cheese, softened
  • 1 jar (14-16oz) Pasta Sauce
  • 1/2 cup Mozzarella Cheese, grated.
  • 3 tablespoons Parmesan Cheese, grated.
  • 3 tablespoons Asiago Cheese, grated.
  • 2 ounces fresh Basil, chopped.
  • 1 tablespoon Oregano.
  • 2 tablespoons Garlic, minced.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease several baking dishes.

Cook pasta shells to al-dente, approximately 10 minutes.

In a large skillet, combine ground beef, spinach, eggs, garlic, oregano and basil. Cook beef mixture until beef is browned. 

In a large mixing bowl, combine cream cheese, Parmesan, and Asiago.  Add beef mixture and 1 cup pasta sauce.  Mix well.

Fill shells with a large spoonful of filling - approximately 2 tablespoons.  Arrange in baking dishes.  Cover lightly with remaining pasta sauce.

Bake stuffed shells 10 minutes.  Remove from oven and cover lightly with mozzarella cheese.  Bake an additional 5-10 minutes until filling is bubbly and cheese well-melted.

Serve immediately alongside tossed salad.

(Yes, that is Boba Fett in the corner of the picture.  I have a Star Wars apron because my girlfriend is amazing.)


  1. Each shell looks like a teeny tiny lasagna! You know, if you want a panel to test and comment upon your recipes, you can use my kitchen on Sundays.