Thursday, March 29, 2007

Stuffed Shells Florentine with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

I rarely cook simple Italian-American food. Tomato sauce doesn’t thrill me (though it’s a great way to get your lycopene!), and the lack of green things in a dish of even the best baked penne leaves me cold. I love pasta dishes that are heavy on vegetables like swiss chard, mushrooms and caramelized onions, or legumes like chickpeas. My favorite pastas involve no red sauce at all, like spaghetti alla carbonara (possibly with arugula tossed in) or my favorite, pasta puttanesca. My lasagna’s got to have at least one vegetable in it, and whole wheat noodles are almost always my first choice.

My way isn’t necessarily better; it’s just my preference. And if you load your spaghetti down with veggies, it feels like you’re eating twice as much. Everything I’ve just written should be sufficient evidence to show that these Stuffed Shells Florentine are quite an about-face for me. Thank goodness I’m not too set in my ways. Making and eating them was an absolute pleasure.

The Roasted Red Pepper Sauce follows the usual method for making marina sauce, but the freshly roasted peppers and a few anchovy fillets give the red sauce an unexpected twist and an extra layer of flavor. Assembling stuffed shells is not too fussy a proposition for relaxing weekend cooking. Of course, I had to get a green vegetable in there somewhere, and the spinach stuffing only serves to make these more delicious and visually alluring (if you aren’t a spinach lover, you might disagree).

If you have one of those days when you don’t know what to cook, or nothing sounds good to you, try going out of your comfort zone. Stuffed shells are hardly an exotic food, but I rarely make that kind of dish in my own kitchen. What kinds of things do you rarely make?

Stuffed Shells Florentine
I glanced over a couple recipes for guidance, then put this together myself.

Serves 4 (this recipe is easy to double)

Salt and pepper, to taste
About half a pound large shell pasta (you will need 16 good shells)
1 tbs. olive oil
¼ c. finely chopped onion or shallot
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1 ¼ c. ricotta cheese
pinch of nutmeg
1 egg white
¼ c. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for garnish
1 to 1 ½ c. Roasted Red Pepper Sauce (or your red sauce of choice)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season generously with salt and cook shells according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion or shallot and cook for 3-4 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds to one minute. Add the spinach, season with salt and pepper and cook until all the leaves are soft and wilted, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, nutmeg, egg white and Parmigiano. Season with pepper and bit of salt (the cheese already provides some salt). Stir in the spinach mixture.

Coat the bottom of an 8x8 or similar size baking dish with a thin layer of sauce. Fill 16 shells with the ricotta mixture and nestle them into the baking dish. Spoon an ample amount of sauce over the top of the shells. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle some Parmigiano over the top and bake uncovered for 5 more minutes, or until the cheese is melted (I skipped the extra cheese, but still baked it uncovered for 5 minutes). Let the shells rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Roasted Red Pepper Sauce
Adapted from 50 Great Pasta Sauces by Pamela Sheldon Johns
If you want to make this sauce vegetarian, leave out the anchovies.

Makes about 3 cups

2 large red bell peppers
2 tbs. olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
5 anchovy fillets from a jar or can
2 c. chicken broth
1-28 oz. can whole tomatoes (use a brand imported from Italy, if possible)
¼ c. chopped fresh parsley

Roast the bell peppers under your broiler or directly on the burner of a gas stovetop until skins are completely black. Cool, then peel off the skins. Remove the stems and seeds, chop the peppers and set aside until you are ready to make the sauce. This may be done up to one day ahead.

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly browned, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Add the anchovies and stir to combine. Add the chicken broth, tomatoes and their juice, the chopped roasted peppers, and the parsley. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer the sauce for 30 minutes.

Use a hand blender to puree the sauce, or do it in batches in a blender. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if desired. The sauce may be made and refrigerated up to 3 days ahead.


Peabody said...

I like the use of the red pepper sauce...adds a nice twist to a classic.

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I really like the red pepper sauce! The spinach is right for me, I'm always stuffing it in odd places but I really love using it.
Normally I don't do much sugar stuff but right now you'd never know it from my blog.

Anita said...

I use almost the same filling for my lasagne...the roasted bell pepper in the sauce will be so good!

Patricia Scarpin said...

Julie, this is delicious!
I love pasta shells and your sauce sounds like a great variation!

Carrie said...

Hi Julie: I love tomato sauces, but agree with you that they don't have enough veggie-ness/green-ness. When I do lasagna or shells, I always add spinach like you do here. When I do meat sauce I chop mushrooms very finely and saute them with the ground meat to add more veg to the dish. This works particularly well with ground turkey. And, I often chop carrots and/or celery and/or red peppers real fine and use them with onions and garlic as the base for the red sauce. Don't know if the nutrition quotient goes up a whole lot, but it makes me feel more virtuous!
Do try the mushroom thing,'s a great way to eat less meat without losing meatiness.

Kristen said...

I've never made stuffed shells, but I have always wanted to. I think I'll have to give your recipe a try. What a great dinner idea!

Julie said...

Peabody: it really is a nice twist that you can detect and the flavor of the sauce gets even better the next day.
Tanna: Well then a nice spinach dish can counteract all the sugar...perfect!
Anita: Yeah, this would be a great lasagna.
Patricia: Do they make pasta dishes like this in Brazil?
Carrie: I'm right with you...I just like my veggies!
Kristen: Thanks!