Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Daily Special (Stuffed Shells)

These aren't something in my regular repertoire - I imagine them to be a bit bland and boring, but my dinner a few nights ago surprised me.  I had some odds and ends in my fridge that demanded I make stuffed shells - ricotta left over from another project, a half used jar of my tomatoes, lots of greens (the spoils of my friend's fridge - she was leaving for Malaysia for two weeks so I took a few things off her hands.  If it were me I would have cooked and frozen stuff before departure, but hey, in this case, I win!) and some super fancy Italian artisan bronze die pasta (Maestri Pastai Lumaconi) I found on sale quite some time ago.  I kind of grumbled about this particular demand being made upon me by these ingredients at this point, because I was feeling pressed for time, about which I've recently complained.  Surprise!  Making and freezing a batch of stuffed pasta is really quick when you're not making your own pasta, nor hand forming individual ravioli!

If you're comfortable multi-tasking in the kitchen, you can have the spinach and ricotta prepared in the time it takes the pasta water to boil.  If you want to eat sooner rather than later, and you're making your own tomato sauce from scratch, get it on the stove first, especially if it's a recipe that needs to cook down for a while.

Cook Spinach
Cook and squeeze dry a bag of spinach or Swiss chard or green of your choice.  I think I used about 12 ounces uncooked and untrimmed.  By "cook," I mean wash it, and just toss the wet spinach in a saucepan and wilt away.  This takes only a couple minutes, so don't leave it unattended if this particular procedure is new to you.  Let it cool, then squeeze it really, really dry and chop it up.  Yes, I mean that you pick it up by fistfuls and squeeze out all the excess moisture.  Alternatively, use a box of frozen spinach.  Don't cook it, just thaw and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze...  You'll need less (by weight) if you're using frozen spinach.  I don't know what a box of spinach weighs, so you're on your own for the math.  But when I picture a box, it doesn't seem all that far off.  In either case, you want enough so that when you add it to the ricotta (in the next paragraph) the filling looks like my picture.  Unless, of course, you want less.  Or more.  There's surely a point at which you've used too much, though, and the filling won't hold together.  You take your chances.

Prepare Filling
Take a tub of ricotta (about a pound, more or less - don't freak out if the tub reads 15 oz., please, it's close enough) and mix it with a lot of finely grated parmesan cheese.  1/2 cup isn't enough parmesan.  Use a lot, I said.  And not the stuff in the green can, either.  Add in your choice of seasonings: garlic (mashed up to a puree or the granulated sort), Italian herbs, onion (again, the granulated sort, or fresh minced very very teeny tiny), pepper, salt (but parmesan is salty, so watch that.), whatever.  Keep adding stuff til it tastes good, but don't turn it into the culinary equivalent of plaid by using too many different seasonings.  Just be generous with the quantity.  This is the moment when you make the difference between yawn! and something really tasty.  Stir in the spinach. Taste again.   Last chance to tinker unless you're okay tasting it with raw egg.   When you're happy, mix in a beaten egg.

Boil Pasta
Cook your shells until they're almost done.  Maybe one minute (or less) short of being perfect.  Take them out when you find yourself thinking they'd be edible as is, but could use just a wee bit longer in the pot.   I had really big ones, and this recipe filled about 20 of them.  I was proud of myself for guessing that exactly right. Drain and rinse with cool water.  Shake 'em around so there's no water hiding in them.  Easy there, don't break them.  Better still, you might pick up each one and pour the water out, once they're cool enough to handle.  Like I said, you take your chances.  Stuff 'em with your stuff.  No need to be tidy; you're getting hungry, after all.

Beg, Borrow, or Steal Tomato Sauce
Procure some tomato sauce.  The amount you need depends directly on how many of those shells you plan to eat tonight, vs. how many are destined for the freezer.  (Freeze them on a tray and when frozen, toss them in a ziplock.  Don't freeze with the sauce, although I suppose you could freeze sauced ones in little TV dinner trays...)  Use your favorite tomato sauce recipe (maybe there's already some in your freezer!), open a store bought jar, or take that open half quart of  Richcrest tomatoes that you canned last summer that's in your fridge, run them through this thing directly into your saucepan (or just mash 'em up as they cook - potato masher is fine), throw in a big pat of butter and a quarter of an onion (not chopped) and cook it down, cook it down.  Cook it until it's only a little more watery than you like.  (The almost cooked pasta shells will absorb a little extra water when they bake.)  Remove the onion.  Or not.  This made exactly enough sauce for me for one dinner.  If you use really good tomatoes, this simple sauce will make you swoon.  I've never made it with any other sort of tomatoes, and probably wouldn't.

Assemble and bake
Find a pan or dish (do I need to say oven safe?) that will snugly hold the shells you are going to eat tonight.  Put a bit of sauce on the bottom, put in the shells, then pour the remaining sauce (which is most of it) on top.  Cover and bake at 350 for about 30 minutes. Ouch!  They're hot!  Now all you need is a red and white checked table cloth, a straw bottle of Chianti and an accordion.

There are endless variations on this theme. I did it this way, because that's what the contents of my fridge offered at the moment.

I'm not really going to proofread this all that carefully before posting.  If you read my last post, you know why.  Maybe I will later, and at that time, I'll delete this little paragraph.  Until then... you take your chances.

These shells await entry into my freezer.

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