Thursday, June 12, 2014

Spinach and Artichoke Stuffed Shells

I’ve been mulling this recipe idea around for years. Actually, I only just realized that a time span of actual years was involved when I found some long-lost recipe notes, and I had written down this idea there. And, you know, I can’t remember what made me actually get around to trying it last month. That’s been happening a lot around there.

Anyway, the filling for these pasta shells is based on one of my favorite party dips, this savory and flavorful Spinach and Artichoke Dip. The dip on its own is a bit too rich to be eaten as a meal in itself (not that I haven’t done something similar), so I took the basic flavors and sort of diluted them a bit with a classic pasta filling, ricotta cheese.

The result was pleasantly garlicky and cheesy, but not as intense as the dip, which is appropriate for a baked pasta main dish, I think. I was pleasantly surprised, not because I didn’t know that the spinach and artichokes and Parmesan and mozzarella and ricotta would be great together, or that they would make a good pasta filling, but because it came out so well the first time I threw it together.

Okay, so that’s sort of the disclaimer. This recipe isn’t exactly well-tested. While I thought it was tasty and balanced, it probably needed a pinch of salt here and there (I included that in the recipe below.) If I have a chance to give it another fling, I might try adding more artichoke hearts. I can also think of a few variations that drift away from the original recipe inspiration. As it is now, however, this is a solid dish. It could probably be doubled to feed a crowd, and the leftovers are great if you’re feeding just a few, as I usually do.

And an added bonus for this writer: I’ve overcome my fear of stuffing noodle shells. It’s not so bad. I hardly even made a mess!

Spinach and Artichoke Stuffed Shells
You could chop and cook fresh spinach or mess with fresh artichokes, but frozen spinach and canned or frozen artichokes are just fine.

12-14 large pasta shells

for the filling:
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
½ cup mozzarella cheese
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon pepper
pinch salt, if desired
5 ounces frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
½ of a 14-16 ounce can artichoke hearts (about 4 hearts), drained and chopped

for the sauce:
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
pinch salt, if desired

½ cup mozzarella cheese

1. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water in batches until cooked but still firm. Carefully remove from the water to a plate and set aside while preparing the filling.

2. Preheat oven to 350 F. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the ricotta, egg, cream cheese, ½ cup mozzarella cheese, ¼ cup Parmesan, 2 cloves garlic, pepper and a pinch of salt, if desired. Process until smooth. Add the spinach and pulse until well-combined. Add the chopped artichokes and pulse just until distributed. Set aside.

3. To make the sauce, melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-size saucepan. Add the garlic and cook just until fragrant. Whisk in the flour until the mixture is very smooth. Cook about 1 minute. Whisk in the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until the mixture comes to a boil (this could take 15 minutes or so, but watch carefully). Cook about 1 minute more or until the mixture has thickened.

3. Spray a 2-quart casserole dish with cooking spray or grease it as desired. Spread about 1/3 of the cooked sauce over the bottom of the dish. Spoon the ricotta mixture evenly into the cooked shells. Arrange them on the sauce in the casserole dish.

4. Pour or spoon the remaining sauce over the stuffed shells. Cover with the remaining ½ cup mozzarella. Cover the dish and bake 30 minutes at 350 F. Uncover and bake 15 minutes more or until bubbly and lightly browned in a few places.

Makes about 4 servings.

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