We’ve had a slow arriving spring and a visit from the late winter flu.
Watching my son curled up in bed the other day with a warm cup of tea surrounded by tissues and the rain falling all around, I was reminded of this ultra-comforting meal that was one of his favorites growing up.
In fact, he named the dish when he was no bigger than a sprout and I think he pretty much captured the bottom line with this one.
Shells from the heavens is probably all you really need to know but in case you’d like a little more information, these are al dente pasta shells stuffed with a creamy-delicious mixture of cottage cheese and spinach smothered in a warming marinara sauce and topped with fresh chopped basil (so we can pretend that it’s spring). Simple, succulent and super versatile too in terms of variations.
The original recipe delivers a good amount of protein but there are any number of add-on possibilities from edamame beans, crumpled tempeh and seitan (plant proteins) to thin sliced chicken, crispy bacon and smoked salmon to savory add-ins like kalamata olive, sundried tomato, artichoke and capers — each delivering its own taste sensation.
You can really play around with this one and make it your own or simply leave it in its original form.
This dish is often made with ricotta for filling, which works perfectly well, but I prefer cottage cheese. I find ricotta a little on the dry/pasty side whereas cottage cheese (typically used in lasagna) has a soft and moist texture that adds some beautiful creaminess to the dish. The small cottage cheese curds are not really detectable either (at least to my palate) when mixed with everything else. Nutritionally ricotta and cottage cheese are very similar so it really comes down to a matter of personal preference.
This is a perfect week night meal that you can assemble the night before and tuck into the fridge until cooking time but I’m also willing to bet that company would love it too — serve it up with a delicious green salad and some pretty sprigs of fresh basil and you and your guests may well find yourselves transported to the heavens.
- 20 jumbo pasta shells
- 10 oz (283 g) frozen spinach
- 16 oz (454 g) small curd cottage cheese, I used 4% fat
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese (plus a little mozzarella for topping)
- 1 egg
- good pinch of coarse black pepper
- 2 cups of your favorite marinara (tomato based) sauce, I used Trader Joe's marinara
- Fresh chopped basil for garnish
- This recipe should make enough filling for 18-20 shells without the add-ins. If you are adding, just cook a few more shells to accommodate.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Cook the pasta shells in boiling water with a drizzle of oil just until barely al dente (9 minutes should do it). Drain and cool.
- Meanwhile, cook frozen spinach in a pot on the stove with a small amount of boiling water scraping down the sides of the spinach with a fork as it cooks. Carefully transfer spinach to a clean colander/strainer and allow to cool slightly before using the back of a spoon or spatula to squeeze out as much moisture as possible.
- In a mixing bowl, combine cottage cheese, drained spinach, Parmesan, pepper and egg along with any additional add-ins (see Notes), mixing well to combine.
- Spray the bottom of a baking dish with oil (I used a rectangular pyrex dish, 8.9" x 13.2") and then spread 1 cup or so of marinara sauce along the bottom using a basting brush or back of spoon to spread evenly.
- Divide spinach-cheese mixture among the shells, placing each shell in the dish open side up. The shells can sit snug beside each other which will also help prop them up.
- Top each shell with a generous dollop of the remaining marinara sauce and a sprinkle of mozzarella cheese.
- Bake uncovered for 30-40 mins or until the cheese has melted, shells are heated through and the marinara sauce is bubbling along the edges.
- Garnish with shells with fresh chopped basil before serving. Enjoy warm (leftovers are also delicious!)
Add-Ins: possible add-ins on the plant side include: edamame beans, crumpled tempeh and seitan (a half or whole cup); any meat protein (crumpled, ground or thin sliced) and mostly pre-cooked; as well as savory inclusions like olives, capers, sundried tomato, heart of palm and artichoke. Just be sure to cook a few more shells to accommodate.
Cooking the Pasta Shells: because the shells will bake after boiling it's important not to over-boil them to retain resilience following baking. A rolling boil of about 9 minutes for 20 shells should do the trick.
Cottage Cheese: you can substitute ricotta for the cottage cheese in this recipe, as preferred.