These stuffed shells are really special to me. They are the first thing I made Collin when we got back from Italy and I had the opportunity to cook for him. Something must have worked because here we are a decade later. Still happily married and eating these stuffed shells.
This dish is a bit like lasagna in that it’s not hard, but it is a labor of love. Give yourself a couple of hours to make this from start to finish. Maybe open a bottle of good red wine to help inspire your inner Italian chef.
PS: You certainly don’t have to make a homemade marinara. You could use your favorite store-bought sauce, but this marinara is SO delicious and SO wonderful that I would encourage you to try it. I promise it’s worth it.
STUFFED PASTA SHELLS IN HOMEMADE MARINARA
For the homemade marinara:
- One 28 oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes
- 1/3 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 5 garlic cloves, finely minced
- pinch of crushed red pepper flake
- 1 tsp. sea salt
- 1 large sprig of basil with lots of leaves
For the stuffed pasta shells:
- One 10 oz. package of frozen chopped spinach
- 1 1/2 lbs. 90/10 ground beef
- 8 oz. package full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- One 1lb. package jumbo pasta shells
- A couple handfuls of fresh parsley, finely chopped for garnish
- For the sauce: Pour the San Marzano tomatoes into a bowl and crush them with your hands. It’s fun! Pour 1 cup of water into the can and swish it around to get all the tomato remnants. Reserve.
- In a large skillet (don’t use a deep pot), heat the extra virgin olive oil over medium heat. Once hot, add the garlic and allow it to cook without burning for 1 minute. Then stir in your tomatoes and reserved tomato water. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper flake and the salt and stir. Place your sprig of basil on top of the sauce. It will wilt and submerge itself. Simmer the sauce until thickened about 20-25 minutes. Taste and season as needed. Allow the sauce to cool for 10 minutes. Using an immersion blender (or normal blender), puree the sauce to a smooth consistency. Set aide until ready to use.
- For the shells: Bring a large stock pot of water up to a rolling boil. Add your pasta shells and cook 2 minutes shy of al-dente according to package directions. Drain and allow to cool.
- For the filling: Place your frozen spinach in a strainer and run it under hot water until thawed. Squeeze out as much water as you can and then place all the spinach in a clean kitchen towel. Continue to squeeze & squeeze until the spinach is very dry. Usually takes a few minutes but this step is REALLY important. Put the dry, chopped spinach in a large mixing bowl.
- In a large skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil over medium high heat. Once hot, add your ground beef and brown it for 10-15 minutes. Drain it on a plate with paper towels and then add it to your bowl with the spinach. Add the softened cream cheese and Parmesan and stir until well-combined.
- In the same skillet with the fat drained, add the remaining 2 Tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil and your chopped onions and garlic. Cook for 5-7 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent. Stir these into the meat-cheese-spinach mixture when done. Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper as needed. Stir in the egg after adjusting seasonings.
- To assemble: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Pour 1/4 of your marinara sauce into an even bottom layer of a 9×13 inch baking dish. Take a pasta shell and stuff with filling. Be generous; it’s okay if some of it spills out and you shouldn’t have any leftover filling when done. Place the stuffed shell in the baking dish and repeat the process until the dish is full of stuffed shells in a single layer. Pour the remaining marinara sauce over everything. Sprinkle the mozzarella in a generous layer on top. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes to 45 minutes until bubbly and hot. Garnish with chopped parsley, if desired.