When C and I were first dating, he impressed me not only with his masculine wiles, but also with his abilities in the kitchen. He cooked meals. He enjoyed wine. He washed dishes. How could I not be impressed? He made comfort food: fajitas, steak and potatoes, stir-fry, pork chops, pasta. Unpretentious, cold-weather food. Food that should have struck me as out-of-place – C was living in Florida at the time and I visited during the summer months – but I suppose I was too busy being impressed to notice. One of the dishes that he masterfully crafted in that tiny apartment kitchen was stuffed shells in marinara sauce. A simple dish, it is one that we return to periodically when we want something easy, filling and comforting.
It is also a dish that has almost endless variations, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Think of the basic cheese filling as a starting place – add whatever seasonal taste you crave or enjoy it simply in its purest form. It is just as delicious stuffed with spicy Italian pork sausage as it is with lightly sautéed zucchini. Add roasted red peppers or caramelized garlic and shallots. Get as creative as you like.
If this recipe seems like it makes a ton of food, it does. This is Make One Freeze One, after all. Depending on your pans, the size of your family, or the size of your appetite, it might end up being Make One Freeze Three (or more!). Even better, in my opinion!
MOFO Basic Stuffed Shells with Marinara Sauce
2 boxes large shell-shaped pasta
3-4 cups marinara sauce (see our recipe!)
4 eggs, whisked
64 oz ricotta cheese (reduce to 40 oz if adding meat or vegetables)
4 cups mozzarella cheese, divided (reduce to 3 c. if adding meat or veg)
1 cup Parmesan cheese (reduce to 3/4 c. if adding meat or veg)
2 pkgs frozen spinach, thawed with as much liquid squeezed out as possible
2 Tbsp fresh oregano, chopped (or 2 tsp dried)
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped (or 2 tsp dried)
1 Tbsp salt
2 tsp ground pepper
Cook shells in salted water until almost-done. They will cook a little more in the sauce in the oven, before and after freezing. Rinse almost-done shells under cold water to keep them from sticking together. Set aside.
Mix together eggs, ricotta, 3 c. mozzarella, Parmesan, spinach, oregano, basil, salt and pepper.
If you are adding some flair (meat, zucchini, roasted red pepper, etc.), now is the time to do it. Follow adjusted cheese amounts above. Add 1 pound meat or 2 cups veg (or more, according to your tastes).
Spread 1 cup marinara sauce on the bottom of two ungreased 13×9 baking pans. Set aside.
Make your life easy! Place mixed filling in a large zip-top bag. Cut one inch of a lower corner off (think: pastry bag) and squeeze filling into each shell. Place filled shells in pan. Top with remaining marinara sauce and cheese.
Bake one pan at 350°F for 50-55 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and starting to turn golden-brown.
Cover remaining, uncooked pans of shells with a double-layer of aluminum foil, write your cooking directions on top and find a space in the freezer.
ALTERNATIVE FREEZING METHOD:
Good idea alert! To save precious space in the freezer but still get your MOFO meal stashed away, try this: Only put sauce into one baking pan (the one you’ll eat tonight). Fill all the shells as the original recipe indicates. Make one pan for dinner tonight. Arrange remaining stuffed shells on cookie sheets – don’t crowd them! – and freeze for a few hours. When stuffed shells are mostly frozen, remove from cookie sheets, place in zip-top freezer bags, label, and marvel at how good those bags look in your nicely organized freezer. When you’re ready to use them, take out only as many shells as you need, arrange in your baking dish with sauce on the bottom, thaw, and bake as directed! Brilliant!