smokin’ shells

It had to happen eventually. Sometimes life gets in the way of pretty pictures, and these, well, these look like I have these last few weeks of fall semester. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. On the inside, they’re almost perfect. 

And so with this introduction of the worst photos ever to grace this website, I bring you the best kind of indulgence: the kind that surprises you. This one sneaks in the back door and kisses you right on the mouth. With a mouthful of soft cheese and slippery, al dente pasta shells, this dinner proves that the stomach’s is more reliably discerning than the eye.

You know what the problem is with being a food blogger/photographer? There are no smiles, no shining eyes, no expressions to capture. Often food that blew your mind winds up looking like a pile of brown mush, or in this case, a Michelina’s frozen pasta entree. But food also symbolizes moments, and that is what I think these photos of my lunch-time leftovers do best–haphazardly taken after an eight mile run just before rushing to class.

This dish looks a lot better when it first comes out of the oven–the cheese all flecked with brown and the roasted tomatos bubbling up from beneath like a secret. Let’s face it, the microwave just leaves something to be desired when it comes to putting the best food forward.

I think part of the joy in this dish is that I didn’t make it. It was past of the third installment of a (once-every-some-weeks’) cooking group I have with two of my favorite friends: something we affectionately refer to as “estro-cook.” While I was laboring away on the butternuts, my partners in crime were busy working away at this little number. Two weeks later, it emerged from my freezer, masquerading as an Italian getaway. 

Not the kind of food I usually make, this dish left me delighting in the simple things: cheese I don’t care about the fat content of, garlic (ohhh, garlic), the taste of roasted things, and that everyday miracle of stuffing ingredients into a little boat of pasta. What could be better?

Four-Cheese Stuffed Shells with Smoky Marinara

Makes 2 casseroles, 5 servings per dish

1 pound jumbo shell pasta (40 shells)
cooking spray
1 (12-oz) carton cottage cheese, fat content of your choice
1 (15-oz) carton ricotta cheese
1 cup (4 oz) shredded asiago cheese
3/4 cup (3 oz) grated fresh parmesan cheese
2 T chopped fresh chives
2 T chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (10-oz) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
6 cups Smoky Marinara (recipe to follow)
1 cup (4 oz) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain and set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 375°. Coat 2 (13 x 9-inch) baking dishes with cooking spray; set aside.
  3. Place cottage cheese and ricotta cheese in a food processor; process until smooth. (Or, if you don’t care deeply about super-smooth filling, just mix together in a bowl.) Combine cottage cheese mixture, asiago, and next 6 ingredients (asiago through spinach).
  4. Spoon 1-2 T cheese mixture into each shell. Arrange half of stuffed shells, seam sides up, in one prepared dish. Pour 3 cups Smoky Marinara over stuffed shells. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup mozzarella. Repeat procedure with remaining stuffed shells, Smoky Marinara, and mozzarella in remaining prepared dish.
  5. Cover with foil.* Bake at 375° for 30 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

*To freeze unbaked casserole: Prepare through Step 5. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing to remove as much air as possible. Wrap with heavy-duty foil. Store in freezer for up to 2 months.

To prepare frozen unbaked casserole: Preheat oven to 375º. Remove foil; reserve foil. Remove plastic wrap; discard wrap. Cover frozen casserole with reserved foil; bake at 375º for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until the shells are thoroughly heated.

Nutritional Information if using 1% cottage cheese
Calories: 470 (30% from fat) Fat: 15.7g (sat 8.8g,mono 4.7g,poly 0.9g) Protein: 28.3g Carbohydrate:
52.7g Fiber: 5.3g Cholesterol: 47mg Iron: 3.8mg Sodium: 916mg Calcium: 508mg

Smoky Marinara

6 cups (serving size: 1/2 cup)

1 T olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 c. chopped fresh basil
2 T chopped fresh parsley
2 T chopped fresh or 2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
2 (28-oz) can crushed or diced fire-roasted tomatoes, undrained

  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, basil, parsley, and oregano; sauté 1 minute, stirring frequently.
  2. Stir in vinegar and remaining ingredients. Reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes.

Courtesy of Barbara Seelig Brown, Cooking Light, March 2003.

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