I don’t make stuffed shells often, but when I do my family is always happy. Leftovers are a bonus and, like much comfort food, taste even better when reheated a day or two later!
Normally when I’ve prepared stuffed shells — which is about once a year — I’ve followed the recipe on the back of the pasta box. But then I ran across Alex Guarnaschelli’s recipe for stuffed shells in her new cookbook, Cook with Me: 150 Recipes for the Home Cook. Unlike other recipes I’ve tried, hers calls for only two kinds of cheese — ricotta and pecorino — but still has lots of flavor with the addition of soy sauce, fresh thyme and ground nutmeg to the ricotta filling.
As I prepared the shells, I really felt as though Guarnaschelli was cooking with me, guiding me through each step. I had never added soy sauce to a stuffed shell filling, and Guarnaschelli is right, of course, as she says it “adds umami — you won’t even know that soy sauce was involved when you taste the dish.” Plus, she explains how to fry the fresh thyme in olive oil, then use that flavored oil on the cooked shells before filling them.
I chose to use store-bought tomato sauce, but based on the results of her stuffed shells recipe, I may try her sauce recipe too!
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 sprigs fresh thyme
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound large shells
- 1 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 3 cups tomato sauce
- Drain the ricotta: Remove the ricotta from its container and place it in a colander set over a bowl. Refrigerate the ricotta for at least 30 minutes or up to 4 hours.
- Fry the thyme: Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the oil begins to smoke lightly, add the thyme sprigs and fry them until they are crispy, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer the thyme to a paper towel to drain, and season it with salt (reserve the oil in the saucepan).
- Cook the pasta: Fill a large pot with 4 quarts of water and bring it to a rolling boil over high heat. Add a generous handful of salt and bring the water back to a boil. Taste the water. It should be salty like seawater. Add the pasta shells and cook, stirring them gently with a large slotted spoon to ensure they do not stick, until they are just shy of al dente, 4 to 5 minutes. Drain them and then place them in a large bowl; add the reserved oil from the saucepan and toss. Refrigerate the shells on a sheet pan.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Prepare the ricotta filling: In a large bowl, spread the drained ricotta across the bottom and up the sides of the bowl so the seasoning will coat most of the cheese. Season with salt and sprinkle 1/2 cup of the pecorino in an even layer over the ricotta. Use a small strainer to sift the nutmeg in an even layer over the cheese. Stem the fried thyme over the ricotta, allowing the leaves to fall into the mix; discard the stems. Mix to blend and then stir in the egg and soy sauce.
- Stuff and bake: Put the ricotta filling in a resealable plastic bag and cut off the tip of one corner with scissors. Use the bag to squeeze the filling into each shell. Arrange the shells snugly in a single layer in a broiler-safe 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Spoon the tomato sauce over the shells and place the baking dish in the oven. Bake until the shells are browned and crisped, 15 to 18 minutes. Top with the remaining 1/2 cup pecorino and run under the broiler until bubbling hot and browned, 2 to 3 minutes.
Cook with Me: 150 Recipes for the Home Cook is available upon request from Whitehall Public Library here or by calling 412-882-6622.