This dish is proof that if a parent who enjoys cooking good food waits long enough, her picky-eating kids turn into humans. They also turn into tax-paying grown women who color their hair, gripe about gas prices, live for good bike weather, and prefer Midori Sours to red wine. Sometimes they get proverbs tattooed on one shoulder. Life can be complicated.
Cheese-stuffed pasta shells first crossed my plate in the 1980s at a dinner with friends who would divorce a few short years later, she leaving him for a woman she loved in college. That was another first in my limited experience. Like I said, life can be complicated. My friend told me that the recipe for the pasta shells came from a cookbook I already owned, and I made it a few times with nice results, but I found that I liked the recipe on the back of the box of shells the best. It was simple and good, and it became a regular on my menu rotation. My husband and I liked it, and First born ate it without complaint. (Its similarities to spaghetti with tomato sauce helped.) Last born, however, laboriously scraped every particle of ricotta cheese filling from inside her serving of shells and ate the flattened remains with a grimace. Her plate looked like a battlefield. I poured more wine.
I made the pasta shells again last night, and the reception was much different than in years past. Last born boxed up the leftovers for dinner to go, to my amazement. First born saved two shells for lunch at her office today. Later last night, Last born texted me. “Dinner was so good!” she said. “I didn’t smoosh out the cheese!”
OMG, alert the media, I responded. And smiled.
Stuffed Shells (adapted from a recipe on the back of a box of Barilla Jumbo Shells)
1/2 of a 12-ounce package of jumbo pasta shells (about 18 shells)
1 24-ounce jar of your favorite marinara sauce (I prepared this once with homemade marinara, and the finished dish was watery. I went back to jarred sauce for this particular recipe.)
1 egg, beaten
1 15-ounce container of ricotta cheese (part-skim or whole milk, your choice)
8 ounces freshly grated mozzarella cheese (divided use)
3 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese (divided use)
2 tablespoons freshly chopped Italian parsley
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Cook pasta shells in plenty of boiling, salted water according to package directions. Strain into a large colander, then rinse with cold water. Dump out onto a large sheet of foil spread out on a counter. Separate the shells into individual pieces, and shake out any extra water lodged inside.
2. While the shells cook, combine the beaten egg, all of the ricotta, 1 3/4 cups of the mozzarella, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, and all of the parsley into a medium bowl. Stir with a fork to blend thoroughly. Combine the remaining 1/4 cup of mozzarella and 1/4 cup of Parmesan in a small bowl; set aside.
3. Lightly coat a 9×13-inch baking dish with nonstick spray. Pour about 3/4 of the jar of marinara sauce into the dish, spreading the sauce to cover the bottom evenly.
4. With a spoon or cookie scoop, fill each shell with about 1 tablespoon of the cheese mixture. Distribute mixture evenly. Arrange filled shells, open-side up, in the baking dish. Spoon a ribbon of the remaining marinara sauce over each row of shells, then sprinkle the reserved mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over the top. Coat a sheet of foil with non-stick spray, then cover the dish with the foil, non-stick side down, and place in the oven.
5. Bake, covered, until bubbly, about 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue cooking until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Garnish the top with torn pieces of fresh basil, if you have some.