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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sausage and Spinach Stuffed Shells

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Stuffed shells will always hold a special place in my foodie heart. Five Februarys ago I decided to surprise (and hopefully impress) my then-boyfriend by cooking him a meal for Valentine's Day. The menu I decided on was stuffed shells, salad (I think this one!), and breadsticks (from a can, that I definitely shaped into hearts ha). I have no idea how I settled on this meal, probably because I think it was simple enough for even me, the girl with literally no kitchen skills.
I vividly remember scrambling around my friends' apartment kitchen, checking and re-checking my recipes amidst several frequent phone calls to my mom. "What should the pears look like when I cut them? How much filling should I put in each shell?" Bless my mom's patience!

Though I'm not sure how well I succeeded in impressing Ryan, I remember being proud of myself and my first meal. I'm pretty sure that wasn't just the first meal I'd ever cooked for a boy, but the first meal I'd cooked, ever. I've come a long way...
Five years later, I set out to make stuffed shells again. This time for nine people, not just one, and with a whole lot more confidence. There were no panicked phone calls to my mom, although I did ask my sister to come help (mostly as an excuse to spend time with her!). Whether you're a newbie in the kitchen or a seasoned veteran, this is one recipe to keep in your repertoire. The filling is perfect--not too cheesy, not too meaty, and not too packed with vegetables, making them an all-around crowd pleaser, as the cleaned plates attested to!

One Year Ago: Homemade Tagalongs (yup, like the Girl Scout cookie!)
Two Years Ago: Cajun Tilapia with Polenta and Peppers

Sausage and Spinach Stuffed Shells
slightly adapted from Simply Recipes

-1 (12 oz) package jumbo pasta shells
-1 tbsp olive oil
-1 cup finely diced onion
-1 lb Italian sausage, casings removed (I used half mild, half spicy)
-1 tbsp minced garlic
-1 large egg
-16 oz ricotta cheese
-6-8 oz chopped fresh spinach
-1/2 cup shredded Italian cheese
-1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
-1 tsp dried basil
-1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
-1/2 tsp salt
-1/2 tsp ground black pepper
-1 (28 oz) can tomatoes with herbs, including the liquid (could also sub your favorite tomato sauce) (double the tomatoes if you like lots of sauce!)

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package instructions. Drain, rinse in cold water, and set aside.
2. In a large skillet over medium high heat, heat olive oil. Add onions and cook for 5 minutes, until softened. Add the sausage to the pan and using a wooden spoon, break the sausage up into smaller bits, cooking until sausage is cooked through and no longer pink. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Remove pan from heat.
3. In a large bowl, add the egg and beat lightly. Add the ricotta, chopped spinach, all of the Italian cheese, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, basil, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and sausage mixture. Mix to combine well.
4. Spread 1/2 cup chopped canned tomatoes on the bottom of 2 (9 x 13) baking dishes. With a large spoon, fill each cooked pasta shell with some of the ricotta and sausage mixture. Arrange the stuffed shells in the two dishes. Top with the remaining tomatoes.
5. If freezing, cover with foil and plastic wrap and freeze for up to 4 months. The dish can also be refrigerated overnight before cooking. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375F. Cover the pans with foil and bake for 30 minutes, until hot and bubbling. Remove the foil, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese, and bake uncovered for an additional 10 minutes.

*serves 8 (I doubled the recipes and filled two 9 x 13 pans VERY full plus a 9-inch square pan and another medium-sized baking dish. I baked the two 9 x 13 pans immediately and froze the other two. When ready to bake those, I thawed overnight.