You’ll love the four cheeses, basil and hint of nutmeg in these delicious vegetarian stuffed pasta shells with spinach, smothered in Marinara sauce.
My friend Cathy made pasta shells recently and tempted me by sending some pictures and the recipe. I couldn’t resist the beautiful colors and decided to give the recipe a whirl. In my obsessive research fashion, I checked out half a dozen similar recipes which were all – ah – similar. The only real differences were in the proportions of filling ingredients, some used an egg and some topped the shells with Mozzarella. Cathy’s recipe from an old Food and Wine cookbook used a lot of goat cheese, breadcrumbs and jalapeno pepper in the sauce.
I ended up blending recipes from Food and Wine, Serious Eats, Eating Well and Fork Knife Spoon based on my own tastes and any tips the authors had to share. I served it recently to the vegetarians at a family dinner party. Very well received – phew.
I’m not a huge cheese fan, but I found the blend of cheeses with the spinach, garlic, basil and nutmeg to be a great combination. Try to get the best ricotta you can – creamier, less grainy. Or if you’re feeling ambitious, the recipe for homemade ricotta from Smitten Kitchen comes well recommended with minimal hands on time.
All in all, this is a solid make-ahead vegetarian pasta dish that is sure to please the family or guests. And the bold red and green colors, as I said, are great! Hey, maybe a good dish for the vegetarians at the Christmas dinner table?
- Needless to say, you can save time by using a great store-bought Marinara sauce like White Linen from Costco. The total time will then take about 45 minutes, most of that baking time.
Tailor To Your Tastes
- You can use fresh spinach instead of frozen. Wilt it in the microwave for a minute, chop and squeeze dry in paper towels.
- Vary the proportion of cheeses e.g. more goat cheese, less ricotta, more Parmesan, etc.
- Vary the heat/spice in the sauce. Kick it up with more chili flakes or a seeded, chopped jalapeno pepper.
- Use your own favorite marinara sauce.
Make Ahead Stuffed Pasta Shells With Spinach
- Prepare the whole dish, cover and refrigerate for a day or two. When ready to use, follow baking instructions, but add 10-15 minutes to covered baking portion.
Stuffed Pasta Shells With Spinach Recipe
- 14 large pasta shells. I make 18-20 in case some break (if jumbo size, make less)
Marinara Sauce (NOTE 1)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 3-4 cloves minced garlic
- 1 28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes, preferably (or other kind)
- 0.25 tsp chili flakes (or more to taste)
- 0.5 tsp kosher salt
- 0.25 tsp pepper
Stuffing for pasta
- 1 cup combination ricotta and goat cheese (I used 3/4 cup ricotta, 1/4 cup goat cheese)
- 6 tbsp Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, packed
- 5 oz frozen chopped spinach (to make 1/4 cup well drained cooked spinach)
- 1/2 cup Mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 1/8 tsp nutmeg (adds great flavor!)
- 1/2 cup Mozzarella cheese
- 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese
- Preheat oven to 375F
- BOIL PASTA SHELLS: Place pasta shells in boiling salted water and cook 2 minutes less than instructions say on package for al dente. Drain, add a few drops of oil to prevent them sticking and set aside.
- MAKE MARINARA SAUCE: While pasta is boiling, in a medium saucepan, heat olive oil to medium. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds until fragrant. Wash hands well. Remove 1-2 tomatoes at a time from can, squish over saucepan until well broken up, then add to saucepan. Repeat with all tomatoes. Add juice from can. Add salt, pepper and chili flakes. Stir, bring to boil, then lower to medium and cook uncovered for 20-30 minutes until thickened to consistency you like. For shortcut, see NOTE 1.
- MAKE CHEESE STUFFING: Microwave frozen spinach covered for 2 minutes (or rinse under water to thaw). Drain well and squeeze excess water out with paper towels. You should have about 1/4 cup (but a bit more or less is fine). Add spinach and all other cheese stuffing ingredients to a processor. Process for a minute until well blended. (Alternatively, chop basil finely and mix all ingredients together by hand).
- STUFF SHELLS: Add about 1/2 cup of Marinara sauce to bottom of a 7 x 11 or 9 x 9 glass pyrex or oven proof pan. Stuff shells with cheese-spinach mixture. (Some find it easier to put stuffing in a plastic bag, cut off one bottom tip of the bag, and pipe stuffing into pasta shells. ) Arrange shells in pan, stuffed side up.
- FINISH AND BAKE: Add about 1 cup Marinara sauce evenly over stuffed shells. Sprinkle Mozzarella and Parmesan on top. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes or until bubbling and starting to brown. Serve immediately with extra Marinara sauce on the side if you like. Note 2.
- Shortcut for Marinara Sauce: Feel free to use 1 1/2 - 2 cups of a good store-bought Marinara sauce. A great one is White Linen Marinara Sauce found at Costco. This will save about 1/2 hour of cooking time for this recipe.
- To make ahead: Refrigerate casserole, then bake as instructed, adding 10-15 minutes extra time to the covered baking portion.
If you make this pasta, feel free to rate it in the recipe above (using the stars above “rate this recipe”) and leave a comment if you like below.