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.
For the stuffing:
- 2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 boneless chicken breast, 5 ounces, cut into 2-inch-by-5-cm pieces
- 1 piece boneless pork shoulder, 8 ounces, cut into 2-inch-by-5-cm pieces
- 1 piece boneless veal shoulder, 8 ounces cut into 2-inch–by-5-cm pieces
- 1 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ¾ cup dry white wine
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- ¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 3 ounces prosciutto di Parma, finely chopped
- 3 ounces mortadella, finely chopped
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- 12 ounces baby spinach leaves
- 1/3 cup heavy/double cream
For the stuffed shells:
- One 12-ounce box jumbo pasta shells
- Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
- 1 batch Simple Tomato Sauce, heated to a simmer
- 1 ½ cups shredded scamorza or low-moisture mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
For the stuffing:
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large frying pan or sauté pan placed over medium heat. When the butter is melted and begins to sizzle, add the onion and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften. Arrange the chicken, pork, and veal in the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover the pan and let the meat cook for 12–15 minutes, or until the onion is soft and the meat is cooked through but not browned. Season the mixture with the salt and a few grinds of pepper.
Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Cook for 2 more minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool for 10 minutes.
Transfer the cooled meat mixture to a food processor and process for 10–15 seconds, or until it is very finely ground/minced but not a paste. You want the mixture to have some body. With a spatula, scrape the stuffing into a large bowl.
In a separate small bowl, stir together the eggs and Parmigiano cheese. Pour the egg mixture into the bowl with the meat. Fold in the prosciutto, mortadella, and the nutmeg (if using).
Put the spinach, with the rinsing water still clinging to the leaves, in a deep frying pan or saucepan placed over medium-low heat. Cover the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the spinach is wilted. Drain the spinach in a colander set in the sink. When it is cool enough to handle, use your hands to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Transfer the spinach to a cutting board and chop very finely. Add the spinach and the cream to the meat mixture and mix thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
For the stuffed shells:
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Add the shells, stir to separate, and cook according to the package instructions until slightly underdone. They should be flexible but still somewhat firm (they will finish cooking in the oven). Drain the shells in a colander set in the sink and transfer them to a large bowl. Drizzle a little olive oil over the shells — just enough to coat them so they do not stick to one another — and toss gently with a wooden spoon.
Spoon a generous 1 cup of the tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish to make a soft bed for the shells. Fill each shell with about 2 tablespoons of the stuffing, and arrange them in rows, filling side up, in the dish. Spread the remaining sauce over the shells and sprinkle with the scamorza and Parmigiano cheeses.
Bake the shells, uncovered, for 30–40 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is browned. Transfer to warmed shallow individual bowls, or place the baking dish on the table for diners to help themselves. Serve immediately.