Finally, a recipe good enough to share! I've been cooking consistently this month, but I've either neglected to photograph my recipes or decided they weren't worth it. Tossing shredded carrots and broccoli with store-bought dressing doesn't warrant a blog post (seriously, Bon Appetit?).
This is a great recipe for this time of year, when you're still craving winter's comfort food, but are trying to shake off some of its heaviness. I found that the spinach took up a lot of space in the filling that might otherwise have been taken up by cheese and sausage. That made for a much lighter shell. I think it's also a good recipe for busy people. Making the shells did take me forever - around two hours - but the recipe makes four dozen, which will last quite a while. And the prep time was my own fault. I took my time and went the long way about prepping some of my ingredients. For example, I used fresh baby spinach where the recipe suggested frozen, which meant I had to spend a good 40 minutes stacking tiny leaves and chopping them up. Halfway through I realized that this is what food processors are for. But really, the rhythmic nature of chopping can be relaxing, so I pushed through to the end. The sausage took a long time, too, because mine refused to crumble. It was a little tricky to get it out of the casing, but then it just sat in the pan, foiling my efforts to break it up. I ended up taking it out of the pan and dicing it, which also took awhile. Next time I'll go for butcher-fresh sausage, rather than the packaged national brand for easier crumbling.
But despite these hangups, I ended the day with a lovely tray of shells baking in the oven and two more in the freezer for later. I find that stuffed shells freeze very well. I make them in my glass pyrex oven dishes, pop the lid on and freeze the whole thing. They'll just need a few extra minutes in the oven later on.
And the immediate payoff, apart from a tray of shells for dinner, is a house smelling like sauteed sausage and onions and an oven full of sweet, concentrated tomato sauce (I love what time in the oven does to tomato sauce!) rather than burnt popcorn. That's a definite win.
3/4 lb sweet Italian sausage, casings removed and chopped
2-3 large garlic cloves, minced
16 oz ricotta cheese(I think I used 22 oz, because I was trying to get rid of some leftovers, so I ended up with a bit more filling)
10 oz fresh spinach, rinsed well and chopped
1 c grated Parmesan
1 tsp dried basil (or 1 tbsp fresh)
1/4 c plain bread crumbs
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 jars tomato sauce
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the shells according to package directions. Drain, rinse in cold water, and set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook about 5 minutes until softened. Add the sausage to the pan and cook about 5 more minutes (until no pink remains). Add the garlic and cook about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Remove from the heat.
In a very large bowl, beat the egg lightly. Then add the ricotta, 1/2 c Parmesan, basil, bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Mix this well, then add the spinach and the sausage mixture. (You could combine all this at once, but I found it easier to work with the cheese mixture first, and then add all the extras. I think that gave me a more even mixture.)
Spread some sauce in your baking dish(I used about half a jar of sauce for a 9 x 13 dish - my other two baking dishes were smaller, so I adjusted accordingly. The idea is just to give your shells something moist to sit on). Fill each shell with about 1 tbsp of cheese mixture and arrange in the pan(it's hard to judge how much each shell needs. I think 1 tbsp is a good start, and if there's any filling left over, you can go back and add it to any shells that look skimpy). Spread the remaining sauce on top.
When you're ready to bake, preheat your oven to 375° F. Cover the pan with foil and bake about 30 minutes, until hot and bubbly (remember to add a few minutes for frozen shells). Remove foil, sprinkle with remaining 1/2 c Parmesan and bake uncovered for 10 more minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.
Like I said earlier in the post, this made about 4 dozen for me, even with some broken shells. If you aren't making this for a large group, just freeze the rest until you need them.