Tag Archives: pasta

Ricotta-Stuffed Pasta Shells with Savory Tomato Sauce

A few years back, my youngest sister suggested making this dish for my father when we were at his house for dinner.  As he’s now back to bachelor-style fare, with my mother being ill, he doesn’t have pasta very often.  For some reason, he won’t fix it for himself, which we all find odd, as it is one of those things that we all learned how to cook early on in learning how to feed ourselves.  With these Ricotta-stuffed Pasta Shells with Savory Tomato Sauce, we also discovered that we had a niece/nephew-friendly dish as well, so it is in the rotation of possible menu selections for their visits.

I found this in the back of a cabinet when I cleaned out my parents’ kitchen

I offer it here as a second-to-last Lenten Friday dinner option, just as you can’t face one more tuna dish or going out for pizza again on a Friday night.  Throw in a salad and garlic bread to make it complete – red and white checked tablecloth optional.  Candle in Chianti bottle is even more optional.  This is also a good way to use up some of the Easy Tomato Sauce if you have any of that still on hand.  I made half a batch of the Ricotta-Stuffed Pasta Shells with Savory Tomato Sauce for the purposes of this demo, as you’ll see from the photos.  The leftovers are great, too, but I didn’t want to have them around for a week.  To feel the hungry hoard at my folks’ house, we double the recipe.

Ricotta-stuffed Pasta Shells with Savory Tomato Sauce

Prep-time: 1 hour (with cooking)

Serving size: 4-6 shells per adult


Ricotta-stuffed Pasta Shells:

24 Jumbo Pasta Shells

1 15-oz. container Ricotta Cheese

1 1/2 c. Parmesan Cheese, grated

1/2 tsp. Salt

1/4 tsp. Black Pepper, ground

1/4 tsp. Nutmeg, ground

2 Tbsp. Parsley, curly-style Italian, fresh, chopped

2 Egg Yolks (save whites for another use)

Savory Tomato Sauce:

1 tsp. Salt

1 c. Onion, cut into small dice

1 Tbsp. Garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. Red Pepper Flakes

2 1/2 c. Easy Tomato Sauce

3/4 tsp. Oregano, dried

1 Tbsp. Parsley, curly-style Italian, fresh, chopped


Put a large pan of water on the stove to boil. When the water has reached a rollicking, bubbling state, add the salt and let the water come to the boil again.  While the pasta water is boiling and the shells are cooking, make the Spicy Tomato Sauce.

Put oil in large saucepan and let it warm over low heat.

Add onions and raise the heat a little bit.  Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the onions are translucent and soft.

Add garlic, stir into onions, and let cook for about 1 minute more, making sure not to let it burn or turn golden.

Add red pepper flakes.  You can adjust the amount to your taste.  The goal is to perk up the sauce to provide a lively balance to the heavy cheese, not to make it super-spicy.

Add Easy Tomato Sauce and stir to incorporate. [If the pasta water is boiling at this point, add the shells and then return to making the sauce.]

Add the dried oregano and chopped, fresh Italian parsley and stir into the sauce.  Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.  Leave to continue cooking over low heat while preparing the Ricotta-stuffed Pasta Shells.

If you haven’t already done so, put the pasta shells into the boiling salted water and let them cook according to the package instructions.

Once cooked through, drain pasta and let it cool while fixing the cheese filling.

Pour the ricotta into a medium-sized bowl.

Add 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese.

Add salt, freshly-ground black pepper, and ground nutmeg to the cheeses.

Add chopped, fresh Italian parsley to the cheeses and seasoning.

Mix seasonings and ingredients into the cheeses and blend together thoroughly.

Add egg yolk to cheese mixture and stir to blend it completely into the cheese mixture.

The mixture will have a slight yellow-ish hue from the egg yolk, and the ricotta mixture will be creamy.  It was about this point that I realized that I had just made the classic filling for cheese ravioli, as I’d learned in my pasta making course last year.

Put a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta sauce in the pan and spread it around to coat the bottom of it.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Carefully open up the cooked pasta shells and fill each of them with a couple of tablespoons of the ricotta mixture.

Place the cheese-stuffed shells in the pan.

Continue filling the shells with cheese and putting them in the pan, lined up beside each other.  When we make this for our family, it becomes a team effort, with my sister recruiting me and her boyfriend to help her stuff the shells, to get that double batch of them in the oven for dinner.

Cover the pasta shells with the tomato sauce, using about 2 cups of it.  Sprinkle the sauce-covered stuffed shells with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.

Cover the pan with foil and place in the oven to cook for 25-30 minutes, until the shells are heated through and the cheese is all melted.

Gently pull back the foil, allowing for the oohs and aahs to escape from everyone’s lips at the beauty and wonder of this gorgeous pasta dish.

Serve the shells immediately and bask in everyone’s contented smiles.  The tangy-tart sauce with a hint of heat (but not overly-spicy) helps balance the rich, creamy cheesiness of the stuffed shells.  This recipe has definitely become a crowd-pleaser around my folks’ house.

Buon appetito!

Pasta alla Liguria and Homemade Pesto

Happy Anniversary to the Greenmarkets! As both the New York Times and New York Magazine highlight they turn 30 years old this week. In a way, it is hard to imagine the city without these culinary resources, they’ve become something of an institution. Specials and the latest seasonal produce are highlighted on blogs, and new arrivals are heralded in the Dining In section of the Times on Wednesdays. The market has even published The New Greenmarket Cookbook (Ed note: this is a 2014 edition, as the previous book is no longer available).

In fact, the markets are such a part of New York life that one of them even played a role in the healing our wounds after 09/11, when it had to leave Downtown Manhattan (along with many of the firms whose employees shopped there during lunchtime). The re-opening of the market that had been at the base of the towers was greeted as a return to something close to normal life and a sign of the city’s resiliency (along with the re-opening of Century 21!).
The market’s own booth at the Union Squaremarket patiently handles queries from anxious foodies asking when the newest arrivals will be there and when whatever is next in season is anticipated. This week’s New York Magazine has a detailed map of the square and all the vendors who are usually there on Saturdays, but my favorite thing to do is just to walk around and take in what is for sale.

There, I’ve picked up wonderful cheeses, delicious handmade sausages, great homemade jams, and lovely freshly-baked bread – for toast of course. Plants and flowers dress up the square and the aroma of lilacs during the spring season makes the trip intoxicating as well. Like lots of folks who visit the market on a regular basis, I have my particular favorite vendors that I search out week after week for their wares.

Many foodstuffs I never thought I would see again once I left Europe, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find there. It’s made the city a great big garden and helped me to keep up my cooking repertoire. Available right at this moment – and soon to disappear – are things like zucchini flowers (see below). Yes, from the vegetable, fiori di zucca as they are called in Italian are usually prepared dipped in a light batter and fried. Not surprisingly, I love them.
Another thing in season and abundance at the moment is fresh basil. Fragrant bunches are for sale at many of the stands, some batches with leaves as big as spinach ones! It’s absolutely gorgeous and it helps to make some of this incredible heat and humidity a bit more tolerable by knowing that this is also a season for such wonderful goodness.
To capture some of this summer sunshine and warmth, I like to make my own pesto. I think that ripe tomatoes and fresh basil smell just like the hottest days in July and August, their peak time. To be honest, it’s often hard to write down a recipe like this, as I usually go by feel and texture and the quality of ingredients on which on can get my hands. As you make this, if you feel you need to add more oil or if you taste it and decide to add more cheese, go for it, that’s what cooking is really about!

Homemade Pesto*
Prep time: 30 minutes
Serves: Makes about a cup of pesto
3 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 large clove garlic
1/4 tsp salt
1 pinch pepper
1/4 cup finely grated fresh parmesan cheese
1/4 cup finely grated fresh pecorino cheese
3-4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
In pre-heated 300o F (150o C, Gas Mark 2) oven, toast pine nuts until light brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. This will release the oils in the nuts. While pine nuts are toasting and cooling, prepare the basil.
Clean basil leaves extra well. You might want to run them through a salad spinner several times to make sure that all the grit (that’s a technical term) is removed from the basil. Alternatively, you could lovingly clean each leaf by hand using a damp paper towel – kidding! You do need to make sure that you really clean it, though. Nothing is worse than biting into pesto and having the dirt grind against your teeth.
In a food processor – I know anathema to some – place garlic clove cut into half, the toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper. Pulse until finely ground.  Add basil leaves. Pulse. It might take several times to finely grind the basil leaves. Carefully push down the basil to make sure that the leaves are meeting the blades. Add one tablespoon of the olive oil. Pulse several times as the leaves become finer and finer. Add remaining tablespoon of olive oil and pulse again. Scrape down sides of food processor. Add cheeses. Pulse to combine. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if necessary.
Store in the refrigerator in a glass container. Top with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. This will help keep the pesto from getting too dry. Do not worry if the top layer seems darker than the part below. Stir to recombine. Pesto will be good for about a week, if it lasts that long before anyone eats all of it.
Serving suggestion:
Below is a quick and easy summertime dish that shows off the pesto well. As you can see from the photo above, it is also colorful and unique-looking. This makes a great warm weather meal as it can be served at room temperature. It also reminds me of bright, sunny summer days spent on the Mediterranean coast of Italy.  Typically, this is made with a type of pasta called trenette. I haven’t been able to find it here in the U.S. so I substitute linguine instead, which is very similar in shape and texture, if a bit thinner. This is one of my favorite dishes to make for entertaining as it is easy to expand it to feed extra mouths.
Pasta alla Liguria
Prep time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4 adults as a first course
1/2 16-oz. box linguine (about 200 grams)
5-6 small red new potatoes per person, cut into quarters
8-10 fresh green beans per person, cut in half
1 Tbsp pesto per person
In large saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add 1 tsp salt. Throw in green beans. Let cook for 3-5 minutes until a fork goes through them easily. With skimmer, remove green beans from pan and set aside either by dividing them onto the plates on which they will be served or in a large bowl.
Add potatoes and let cook 5-10 minutes until a fork goes through them easily. With skimmer, remove potatoes and add to the same plate or bowl as the green beans.
If necessary, add more water to the pan. Let come to boil and add 1/2 tsp more salt. Add linguine and cook until al dente. Strain pasta, reserving some of the cooking liquid.
Put in same bowl or plates as the green beans and potatoes. Add one large dollop of homemade pesto (about 1 Tbsp) and stir to combine. To make creamier, add 1-2 spoonfuls of pasta water and stir again.
Bring to table. This pasta dish does not need to be served piping hot, but it should also not be allowed to sit for too long before serving it. It is possible to cook the green beans and potatoes at the same time as the pasta but do not allow the latter to overcook.
Buon appetito!
*Kitchen Witch Tip:
Basil is heading into its peak season in the summer. To preserve this fresh taste, a trick I learned several years ago is to make pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then, save the cubes in a plastic, sealed bag or container in the freezer. During those cold winter months when dishes need an extra kick, you can pop one into sauces and stews.