There’s no need to pre-cook shells before you stuff them. Such a pain messing around with hot floppy shells! Just bake in loads of sauce and they’ll cook in the oven. These jumbo shells, called conchiglioni in Italian, are stuffed with spinach and ricotta. Serve with a Mega Italian Salad and garlic bread for the perfect dinner.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, but stuffing hot cooked pasta shells is a nightmare. Slipper suckers that they are, and they break so easily.
There’s no need to suffer through all that! It’s much easier to stuff raw, uncooked pasta shells and cook them in the oven simply by covering them in a LOT of sauce. It 100% works. It’s the way I’ve been cooking cannelloni/manicotti all my life.
The trick is simply to start with a large volume of watery sauce that the pasta shells cook in. Not dissimilar to cooking pasta in a pot of boiling water, actually. And by the end, that watery sauce reduces down into a lovely thick pasta sauce!
This method of cooking also deals with another pet-peeve of mine: dry pasta shells. No worries about that here, we end up with plenty of tomato sauce for serving!
What you need for stuffed pasta shells
While there’s many stuffing options for pasta shells, the most popular is probably spinach and ricotta and that’s what I’ve gone with today. Sorry for being predictable? 🙂
Jumbo shells (conchiglioni)
Jumbo shells (conchiglioni is the proper Italian name) are more readily available these days in Australian grocery stores (Woolies, Coles, Harris Farms) and the primary reason I went on a stuffed shells bender.
They are a little more expensive than typical pasta shapes – around $5 for a 500g / 1 lb packet. But they go further. You’ll need 250g / 8 oz for this recipe which serves 5 generously, possibly 6. (Let me remind you, I have a rather robust appetite! My serving portions are not skimpy).
The spinach ricotta stuffing
For a meat option, use the beef filling in Beef Cannelloni instead.
Spinach – use frozen for convenience (thaw, remove excess water before using), or fresh if you’ve got an abundance of it
Ricotta – be sure to use a food quality full fat, creamy one. Tip for Australians: avoid Perfect Italiano tub in the fridge aisle of major supermarkets. It’s quite powdery and unpleasant. My favourite is Paesanella which is sold at Harris Farms and over the deli counter at large supermarkets.
Shredded cheese – A flavoured one is best, like cheddar, tasty, gruyere. Save the mozzarella for the topping (which melts well but doesn’t have that much flavour).
Parmesan – don’t skip this! It adds extra savouriness and seasoning to the filling. Just store bought finely shredded or grated is fine, or grate your own.
Garlic – because it makes everything better
Egg – for binding.
Nutmeg – optional, but it’s a lovely touch. I use it in almost all my spinach ricotta fillings.
Salt and pepper
I find this method of cooking stuffed shells from raw works best with a smooth pasta sauce rather than one with lumps of crushed or diced tomatoes. The shells cook more evenly and when it finishes baking, you’re left with a lovely smooth pasta sauce.
Tomato passata – Pureed, strained plain tomatoes, sometimes labelled “tomato puree” in the US (here’s a photo of Mutti tomato passata sold at Walmart). Readily available in Australian supermarkets nowadays, alongside pasta sauces. Excellent for making smooth sauces rather than simmering for ages to breakdown crushed or diced tomato. More on tomato passata here.
Substitutes – US Hunt’s tomato sauce is a perfect alternative. Otherwise, use crushed canned tomato then puree (like I do for cannelloni/,manicotti).
Eschalots –Also known as French onions, and called “shallots” in the US. They look like baby onions, but have purple-skinned flesh, are finer and sweeter. Not to be confused with what some people in Australia call “shallots” ie the long green onions.
I like using eshalots rather than onions because they are finer so they almost disappear into the sauce so you get a lovely smooth sauce. However, you can substitute with a small onion.
Herbs and spices – Fresh garlic, bay leaf, dried thyme and dried oregano.
Tomato paste – To intensify the tomato flavour and thicken the sauce slightly.
White wine – Adds depth of flavour / complexity into the sauce in a way only wine can! It’s only 1/3 of a cup and we simmer to cook out the alcohol. Substitute with more stock, or just skip it.
Vegetable stock – We need a whole litre / quart (4 cups) because we’re making a LOT of VERY watery sauce here! Just watch the video and you’ll see how it all gets absorbed by the pasta shells, leaving behind a lovely thickened pasta sauce for serving.
Sugar – Just a smidge, to take the sour edge off the tomato paste we’re using (tomato paste is sour!).
How to make stuffed shells
It’s actually extremely straight forward and the recipe has a nice flow to it: make the sauce first, then while it’s simmering, stuff the shells. Then assemble and bake!
How to make sauce for stuffed shells
Sauté aromatics – Cook the garlic and eschalots with the herbs in a large saucepan or small pot.
Tomato paste and wine – Cook off the tomato paste for 1 minute (this takes the raw sour edge off and deepens the flavour) then add the wine and simmer rapidly on high heat until it’s mostly evaporated.
Simmer 20 minutes – Add the remaining ingredients then simmer on low for 20 minutes with the lid off.
Watery sauce! The sauce will be VERY watery and there will be loads. Have faith! You need it all – the shells absorb most of that liquid. Keep the sauce hot – we want to use it hot.
Stuffing & bake
Stuffing – Mix the spinach ricotta stuffing ingredients together.
Stuff the raw uncooked shells. I find it easiest to use a small offset spatula (like a butter knife with a bend in it, super useful kitchen tool). Else a knife, spoon – whatever you find makes it easiest for you.
Assemble – Pour the hot sauce into a 23 x 33cm / 9 x 13″ baking dish. Then gently place the pasta shells in. They will be mostly submerged, some might semi-float. But you want most if not all of the pasta submerged under liquid so it cooks evenly (a bit poking above is fine as it will steam-cook).
Bake 70 min covered – Cover the dish with a baking tray (or foil) and bake for 70 minutes. Yes, really, it will take that long!
Why a baking tray? Easy way to cover the baking dish, no waste, no burning yourself, and it lets a little bit of steam escape to help the sauce reduce just the right amount.
15 min bake, cheesed – Remove the baking dish from the oven. Sprinkle with cheese then bake for a further 15 minutes until bubbly and golden.
Serve! Scoop and serve. Marvel at how the shells are perfectly al dente and how there’s so much lovely sauce to serve it with!
Serve with a quick rocket balsamic salad (that’s arugula, to those of you in the States!) or if you’re out to impress, a Mega Italian Salad (it lives up to its name). Add a side of garlic bread and tiramisu to finish, and that’s pretty much my idea of a perfect dinner. When am I coming over?? – Nagi x
Goes well with
Watch how to make it
Spinach Ricotta Stuffed Shells (Conchiglioni)
Sauce (you need LOTS!):
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 eschallots/shallots or 1 small onion , finely chopped (Note 1)
- 4 garlic cloves , finely minced
- 1 bay leaf , fresh (sub dried)
- 1/2 tsp each dried thyme and oregano
- 1/3 cup tomato paste
- 700g / 25 oz tomato passata (US: tomato sauce) (Note 2)
- 1/3 cup Chardonnay or other dry white wine (sub more stock)
- 4 cups vegetable stock/broth , low sodium
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp white sugar
- 1/3 tsp black pepper
- 250g / 8 oz frozen chopped spinach , thawed (Note 3)
- 500g / 1 lb ricotta , full fat please (Note 4)
- 1/2 cup parmesan , finely shredded
- 1 cup shredded cheese (Mozzarella, Colby, Cheddar, Tasty, Gruyere, Swiss, anything!)
- 1 egg
- 1 large garlic clove , minced
- Grated fresh nutmeg (just a sprinkling) or 1/8 tsp nutmeg powder (optional)
- 3/4 tsp cooking / kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 250g / 8 oz jumbo pasta shells (conchiglioni) (Note 3)
- 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella
- 1/2 cup parmesan , shredded
- Fresh basil and parmesan , for garnish (optional)
- Sauté – Heat oil in a small pot over medium high heat. Add garlic, onion, bay leaf, thyme and oregano. Cook for 3 – 4 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.
- Reduce wine – Add wine, increase heat to high and let it simmer rapidly until mostly evaporated (about 2 minutes).
- Simmer – Add passata, stock, sugar, salt and pepper. Stir then simmer on low *(uncovered) for 20 minutes. Use while hot.
- Squeeze spinach – Grab handfuls of spinach and squeeze out excess water.
- Mix filling – Place spinach in a bowl with remaining Filling ingredients. Mix well.
Assemble & Bake:
- Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F (180°C fan).
- Stuff – Stuff UNCOOKED shells with spinach ricotta filling. Stuff them full!
- Assemble – Pour the hot tomato sauce in a 23 x 33 cm / 9 x 13" baking dish. Gently place the stuffed shells in – most will be submerged, some may poke above surface.
- Bake – Cover with a baking tray (or foil) then bake for 70 minutes.
- Cheese it! Check the shells – they should be al dente! (If not, return to oven, covered). Sprinkle with mozzarella then parmesan. Bake 15 minutes until melted.
- Serve, garnished with extra parmesan and basil if desired!
Life of Dozer
Wow. He really will eat anything.