When I first moved to the US (some 15 years ago now!) , I took an instant liking to Mexican food probably because it is hot and spicy and similar to Indian cuisine. It took me some time however to develop my palate for Italian cuisine. One of the problems I had was the lack of heat which I (at that time) equated to blandness. But as I started experimenting at home more by making Italian dishes with a slight Indian touch, I began to really enjoy and appreciate the variety and depth of Italian cuisine. The use of a lot of vegetables in their main course dishes was one that jibed well with the ‘health freak’ in me. And as I had kids and as they started loving the cheesy Italian over anything hot and spicy, I constantly innovated trying to balance the blandness with a little bit of heat so that I could still satisfy the whole family with one dish.
Stuffed shells is one dish that I love because it allows me to sneak in a lot of greens into the kids without them even noticing. They actually love this spinach and mushroom stuffing since it is coated with yummy ricotta cheese that they love!. I occasionally also mix other greens like broccoli rabe with the spinach and no one even notices!
This recipe will make 4 servings
Ingredients: 1/2 a pkg of jumbo shells pasta (about 20 pieces) 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp oil (for cooking the pasta) 1 tbsp olive oil 1 onion, finely chopped 1 tomato, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or crushed 1/2 tsp red chilli powder cayenne pepper (use 1/4 tsp if want mild) 1/4 tsp paprika 1/2 tsp salt or per taste 1/2 pound spinach 1 cup chopped mushrooms 3/4 cup bread crumbs 1 cup plus 1tbsp ricotta cheese 1/2 tsp dried oregano 2 cups pasta (marinara) sauce 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
Take a large stock pot and fill upto 3/4 th with water and heat on stove until the water starts boiling. Now slowly drop the jumbo shells into the pot (taking care not to break them). Add the 1 tsp salt and a tsp of oil and cook on medium heat for about 8 minutes or until the pasta is cooked al dente. Stir with a wooden spoon in between to make sure the pasta does not stick to the pot.(Read the package directions for your pasta as different varieties may have different cooking times but you have to make sure you cook it only al dente meaning a little less done than perfectly cooked since after stuffing them with the filling they will again go in the oven to be cooked further.) Drain immediately using a large strainer and wash with cold water to prevent them from sticking. Set aside and let cool uncovered.
To prepare stuffing, take a large saute pan (or a wok shaped pan) and heat it on the stove. Add the olive oil and heat for about 30 seconds. Then add the onions and saute for about 2 minutes on medium heat. Then add the garlic and again stir for about a minute.
Now add the salt, the red chilli powder, the paprika and stir for about 30 seconds. Then add the tomatoes and cook for about 3-4 minutes stirring frequently until the tomatoes are cooked and soft.
Next add the spinach and the mushroom and continue to cook for about 2 minutes stirring frequently. Now put the stove off and keep aside to cool for about 5 minutes. Finally add the bread crumbs and the ricotta cheese and the oregano and stir.Now pre-heat the oven to 350 deg F. Take a large deep dish or tray that can fit your stuffed shells (or you can use two small trays if you don’t have a large tray) and spread about 1/2 a cup of the pasta sauce on the bottom. Then start filling the pasta shells with the filling – you can use a ziploc bag by filling it up with the filling and then cutting a small tip on one end to pipe the filling into the shell. Or you can simply use a small spoon if you prefer. When you are done placing the filling in all the shells and placing them on the tray, pour the rest of the pasta sauce over the top of the shells making sure to cover each of them with some sauce. Also sprinkle the grated parmesan cheese on the top. Now cover the tray with aluminium foil and place the tray in the oven to bake at 350 deg F for 30 minutes.