Eggplant parmigiana, pizza and pasta shells stuffed with cheese. Ah, Italian food can be superb and ultra-comforting on a chilly night. Jumbo shells stuffed with cheese (and other foods) can be good for you and taste good, too. Meatless pasta with marinara sauce can be filled with cheese and nutrient-rich vegetables and boasts a bit of decadent deliciousness. And you don’t have to book a plane to Tuscany, Italy, to enjoy. Just make this dish in the comfort of your home on the South Shore like I did.
Before I moved to Tahoe, I frequented Italian restaurants with my octogenarian foodie friend with Italian roots. One night we went to an authentic Bay Area hot spot in San Carlos. For the first time, I ordered jumbo shells stuffed with cheese. Sipping hot tea, munching on warm French bread and savoring a tossed salad was heaven amid an Italian ambiance. The entrée was bliss. Dessert was cappuccino paired with giant strawberries dipped in dark chocolate and whipped cream. I admit that while I eat to live not live to eat (a key to staying skinny), special nights, like this one, fed my romantic fantasies like watching my favorite film “Under the Tuscan Sun.” My dinner companion’s true love tales of her bittersweet romantic past as a happy harpist deeply in love with the maestro amused my mind and spirit. I didn’t have to go to Italy, she took me there.
Back home in the Sierra, I confess that years ago I cheated and purchased frozen, in-a-box, ready-made jumbo pasta shells stuffed with ricotta cheese. It was a quick fix like going to a drive thru for fries and a shake. It’s doable but something is missing. But this week, I made jumbo shells stuffed with cheese and spinach. I was surprised how easy and fast they were to make. The aroma of an Italian restaurant filled my cabin for a few hours and was a pleasant treat. It took me back to a pleasurable dining experience.
Mountain Shells Stuffed with Spinach and Cheese
1/2 12-ounce package pasta jumbo shells
1 jar marinara sauce, with olive oil and garlic
2 cups ricotta cheese (your choice)
2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded (save half for topping)
1 1/2 cups fresh baby spinach, chopped spinach
1/4 cup basil, fresh, chopped
2 teaspoons Italian herbs (your choice), dried or fresh
1/8 teaspoon black pepper to taste
Extra virgin olive oil (for greasing pan)
*Optional: Add boiled chopped eggs, mushrooms, lean poultry or meat. You can sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Boil pasta shells for about 10 minutes. Drain. In a bowl, combine cheeses, spinach, basil, herbs and pepper. Combine cheeses and spinach; stuff into shells. Lightly grease a baking dish (I used two: my favorite 8 x 8 inch red rustic one and a white tart dish. Pour half sauce on the bottom of dish. Arrange shells. Pour the rest of sauce over shells. Top with half of mozzarella cheese. Cover with foil. Bake at 375 or 400 degrees for about 25 to 30 minutes till shells are light golden brown. Makes about 12 servings.
These pasta shells are fit to serve family, friends, and yourself. Served with bread sticks or hot garlic bread and a salad can make an ideal dinner. While this dish can be enjoyed year-round, it’s perfect for late winter. Less is more, so while you get your body and mind ready for spring, practice moderation — portion control — with an Italian dish, like this one. It will help you keep off or dump unwanted winter weight. Enjoy.
Motto: Semi-homemade Italian food is fine in Europe but it’s fine in the Sierra, too. Your palate will get its ethnic fix.
Cal Orey, M.A. is an author and journalist. Her books include “The Healing Powers” series (Vinegar, Olive Oil, Chocolate, Honey, and Coffee) published by Kensington. Her website is www.calorey.com.