This is a classic Italian American baked dish up there with manicotti and lasagna. All the same components, pasta, ricotta, mozzarella with tomato sauce. Lasagna is laid out in sheets, manicotti in crepes rolled up, but shells have their own little bed of pasta filled with ricotta and its own sheet of mozzarella. I deviated from the usual ricotta mixture of using egg as a binder and tried chopped spinach. The first attempt using fresh spinach blanched made the ricotta filling too wet, but the frozen chopped not only blended better, but once all the water was squeezed out, it binded the shells much better and gave it a much better texture and taste.
The ricotta mixture does not need any heat or cooking, so start by boiling a half gallon or 2.5 quarts of water with a tablespoon of kosher or sea salt. Cook these at least 10 minutes. The shells will continue to cook while in the oven, however, you want the shells to be soft enough so they open fully without breaking. Strain, allow to cool off and/or you can even rinse them to cool them down for handling.
Do not discard the water you boiled the pasta in. Use it to blanch the spinach for no more than a minute. Drain, squeeze as much of the water out as you can, and allow to cool.
Season the ricotta with a half cup of grated cheese, a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of pepper, then add in the spinach and mix well.
Using a 13″ glass baking dish, put down about a cup of sauce so the shells do not stick. You can make a simple sauce by watching this video, however, it is very easy and does not take long. Simply take a 24-ounce can of crushed tomatoes and heat in a pan with olive oil, garlic, a teaspoon of salt, pepper, and basil if you have it. Don’t worry about the sauce too much, remember the ricotta filling has a lot of flavor in it from the spinach, grated cheese, salt and pepper.
Once the ricotta mixture is made, gently pop open the cooled pasta shells and fill with about a tablespoon of ricotta. Top with the cut cheese slices. You can use grated mozzarella, but deli mozzarella or provolone works better. You don’t want this swimming with more melted cheese, the slices work perfectly.
Cook in an oven at 375F uncovered until they are cooked to your liking. I like the cheese a bit browned, and this takes at least a half hour. It is important to let these cool another 10-15 minutes once they are removed from the oven. This will allow all the cheese to settle and cool off. Otherwise you are just eating a mouthful of molten lava cheese.
- 24 ounce can crushed tomatoes (for the sauce, garlic, basil are optional)
- 18 ounces Jumbo Shells
- 5 ounce container of whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup fresh grated parmasean cheese
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- Chopped frozen spinach
- Sliced mozzarella and/or mild provolone, cut in squares to fit the tops of the shells