This is what I sometimes serve my vegetarian friends who are eggplant-averse and for whom the term “eggplant lasagna” invokes a gag reflex. I love my vegetarian friends as much as I love all my other friends (well, except one vegetarian, but he’s the husband of a very good friend of mine and as long as she’s happy I’m happy) but I cut a lot of corners with this recipe, as you’ll see.
WARNING: This makes a lot, because this is what I’m used to doing for the pre-pandemic crowds. It also doesn’t freeze well, and I don’t know why, and maybe that’s just me. But, it makes for excellent leftovers if refrigerated for a day or two or three. Do not microwave to heat up the leftovers. It will only end in tears. Use an oven. It’s already cooked so just stick it in at 300 degrees until warmed through. The shells will get a little crispy but that’s part of the charm.
1 12-oz box of jumbo pasta shells. This is a very common packaging for jumbo pasta shells, I don’t know why. You should get 30-something shells out of this.
1 8 oz. bag of supermarket spinach. I know, but spinach is a pain in the neck to wash and dice. As it is you should wash and dice further the contents of your bag because you want the spinach to be small.
1 2-lb./32 oz. tub of supermarket ricotta cheese. This is a common size for ricotta tubs. Did I ever tell you I’ve made my own ricotta? It’s ridiculously cheap and easy, but you need cheesecloth.
8 oz. of grated parmesan cheese. Feel free to use Kraft pre-shredded or something like that but I grate my own. Don’t use the salty sand-like stuff in the can. This is about 2 cups.
1 cup, about 4 oz., of grated pecorino Romano cheese.
2 24-oz. jars of good, garlicky marina sauce. I would make my own, but I’m cutting corners.
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1 loaf of crusty French bread.
Butter, for the bread.
1 13-oz. supermarket “salad kit” per three diners. Another curveball, right?
Boil the pasta in salted water but not too for too long, maybe about 5 minutes.
In a big bowl mix together the spinach, ricotta, parmesan and romano. This requires some upper body strength. I wouldn’t use a mixer, though, you don’t want this to be frothy. Try to make sure all elements are evenly distributed.
Pour the water out of your pasta pot, fill with cold water, and carefully dump the shells into a colander and shake to get rid of the water. You do this to get the pasta cold enough to handle. I normally don’t do this to pasta.
In a 9 X 13 baking dish, spread a layer of your marinara sauce. This usually takes me about a third or halfway through one of the marinara jars.
Your shells should be cool enough at this point to handle. If not, douse the shells-filled colander with cold water and shake out as much of the liquid as you can.
This is the fun part. One by one, cradle each shell in the palm of your hand and with the other spoon in the spinach/cheese mixture to fill. Use a tablespoon. Because I am sorely in need of psychiatric evaluation I sing to the shells while I do this. The last time I did this I sang Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” from memory. More than once, this can be a little time consuming. “And if I only could/I’d make a deal with God/and I’d get Him to swap our places…”
Anyway, heh-hem, you should have leftover filling. I over-make on purpose because you put the rest in a bowl, refrigerate, and this makes an excellent slightly warmed dip with crackers when you’re feeling snacky over the next couple of days. I don’t know why more people don’t do this.
Place your shells face down in the sauce bed, starting at one end of the dish. You want them to hold together and if you spread them around randomly they’ll spread apart. They are very antisocial. So one shell in a corner, and then the next one next door, and then the next one just below the first one. If your shells don’t fill the dish spread them out a little because you don’t want a 3/4 full dish with wide-open spaces on one side. One of my sisters places hers face up, but I don’t do this because—
Pour the rest of the sauce over your patient shells that are all lined up. If they were face up, they would drown in the sauce, and in my way the sauce fills in, over and around, and absorbs from the bottom. Try telling my sister that. She says it makes it harder and messier to get the shells out when you’re done. I remind her that when I was 9 and she was 12 she insisted on tobogganing down this icy hill near our house even though I warned her not to. Well, one broken arm later I proved once and for all that I’m always right. Shred 2 cups of mozzarella cheese and put that on top.
Now, your oven is good and heated. Put the shell-filled pan in the oven and bake for about 30 to 40 minutes.
While the shells are cooking assemble your salad from the kit(s). You might think I passive-aggressively resent my vegetarian friends, but I don’t. I use the salad kits with this shells recipe because I’m making things easy on myself anyway so why not. The salad kits are often seasonal, sort of, if you know what to look for. For example, if you’re making the shells this fall or winter buy something with walnuts and/or cranberries.
Remove your dish and let it sit on the stovetop and cool for a little bit. Don’t turn off your oven yet though.
Take a loaf of crusty French bread and put it in the oven to heat. After about five minutes, start plating your shells, then pull out your bread and slice. If you like, use large plates so the shells are on one side and the salad on the other. I personally enjoy it when cheese and tomato sauce collide with salad, so this is what I do.