When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, and my grandpa John Tortorello would go out to dinner with us on the weekend, we'd all go out as a family to Umberto's in New Hyde Park or Borelli's in East Meadow. I knew for certain that he'd order the same thing every time.Now you have to understand, Grandpa John is a character, a former police detective, a great storyteller, a joke-teller, and, well, a little, um, unpredictable. Let's just say you never knew what kind of a story he was going tell you and leave it at that. So it was always kind of funny to me that he would pretty much order the same thing when we'd eat out: stuffed shells.Now there were only ever two dishes he'd ever make for us. One was chili and the other was a side, roasted peppers. So he didn't have a philosophy on how he'd make stuffed shells, but he did have a philosophy about them at restaurants. "If they make good stuffed shells, the rest of the menu is probably pretty good too," he's explained to me.There's some wisdom to this that I buy into. No, you get no indication of how well they do meat, but if they do stuffed shells right at a restuarant then they know how to make a good sauce, they have good cheese blends, good cheese coverage, they know how to use the right ratio of cheese to sauce, and they know how to cook their pasta. My barometer isn't shells, it's manicotti, but I buy into the approach. The cheese can't be dry inside the shells, there has to be some mozzarella in there, some cheese variation. There has to be good covering of cheese that's crisped and burned a bit in places, there has to be plenty of cheese, and there has to be enough sauce — more sauce than cheese.It goes without saying, that pasta better not be overcooked.I usually make my own sauce because it's really not very hard and it's so much better than anything else you're going to find, but as homage to the red-sauce joints of my youth, this recipe isn't from scratch, it relies on store-bought sauce and shells, and it's a little more of a stuffed shells Italian casserole, but I don't think Grandpa John would disapprove and neither will you.
I did not grow up eating stuffed jumbo shells. My Italian mother considered them to be an inferior Italian American substitute for homemade cannelloni. And, indeed, over the years I have encountered many versions supporting her contention: soggy or gummy shells overfilled with gritty supermarket ricotta and doused with heavy, pasty, overseasoned tomato sauce. And yet, the idea of stuffed shells — really good stuffed shells — baked in a pan, bubbling and browned on top, is so comforting that the dish invariably appeals, especially on a cold winter night. My solution was to come up with this wonderful hybrid, which combines my mother’s classic meat and spinach cannelloni stuffing, rich scamorza cheese, and a light tomato sauce.
Davina Lambreaux: When my mother was alive, she and our neighbor had a standing arrangement. When the mirlitons got ready in the fall, Mama would send me or Delmond or Cheri, or sometimes all three of us, to go around the corner and pick all the mirlitons we could. It seems like there would be hundreds of them. I know it was dozens at least. Then Mama would boil them and scoop the meat out of them. She would stuff the meat back into their skins with some shrimp or some ham and some seasoning. We would keep about half of those for Sunday dinner and send some to our neighbor. There was still plenty of mirliton left. So Mama would freeze the rest of the meat and cook it a little at a time until Christmas. That’s when she cooked the last of it.
This is my favorite of my mother’s recipes. (It’s also my daddy’s favorite.) My mother always hated it when people made ground beef the main ingredient in their oyster dressing or their stuffed mirliton. Why call it oyster dressing? Why call it stuffed mirliton? She would say it’s really just beef seasoned with oysters or mirliton or eggplant whatever. I hear her voice echoing with that whenever I eat other’s people’s versions of one of these dishes. The mirliton and the shrimp are the stars here. Mostly, it’s the mirliton.
My mama died years ago. That neighbor never came back after the storm. The mirliton vine drowned in the flood. It wasn’t until the year after Katrina that it hit me. We had us a little ritual. And as much as I used to hate pick¬ing mirlitons and helping Mama clean them and cook them, it was one of the things that we did together. When I would walk back to the neighbor’s house and see how happy she was to get the stuffed mirlitons, it all seemed worth it.
If you can’t find a neighbor with a mirliton vine, then try to find a neighbor without one. When you buy the mirlitons from the store, get two or three extra ones and fix them for your neighbor. That’s about the best advice I can give you to make your mirlitons taste like Mama’s used to.
From Treme, by Lolis Eric Elie
A great bowl of minestrone is hard not to love, but is even better with some fresh crabs thrown in and served alongside crabmeat stuffed shells. The crabmeat makes it a more substantial meal, and the minestrone is a great sauce for the shells.