You know you’ve done something right when your Sicilian father-in-law compliments you not once or twice, but three or four times, on your stuffed shells. Dom and I both thought this batch of sauce was the best I’ve made yet; but having his dad’s confirmation that it was good… that was golden.
I cook sauce like an Italian grandmother. I don’t measure anything, I just toss things into the pot, so all measurements are really gross approximations. If it looks like too much, then don’t put so much (except the fish sauce and the olive brine, you really do want a lot of those); it if looks like not enough, feel free to do more.
My cheese filling turned out to be seat of my pants, adding odds and ends of cheeses to bulk it up. It’s really forgiving. Add whatever cheeses you have, but aim for a variety for a more complex flavor and a better texture.
The Best Stuffed Shells
The magic ingredients for the sauce are the red pepper flakes, anise and fennel, fish sauce, and olives. I like my sauce a little briny and with a touch of piquancy. Fish sauce. Yes, I do mean the stuff that you find in the Asian section of your supermarket or maybe in the Vietnamese grocery. The fish sauce doesn’t make it taste fishy, just deep and rich, umami. If you don’t have fish sauce, you can use anchovy paste, which is more classically Italian anyway.
1 large onion, diced
1/2 bell pepper, minced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
3-4 Tablespoons tomato paste
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup manzanilla olives, minced
1/3 cup olive brine
1-2 teaspoons basil
1 teaspoon oregano
pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon anise seed
1/2 teaspoon roasted fennel seed
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
(All measurements are extremely approximate. I don’t measure, I cook like an Italian grandmother, a pinch here, a dash there, a palmful, a splash, etc.)
In large dutch oven sautee onion and bell pepper in olive oil over medium heat until soft and browning at the edges. Add garlic and stir for another minute or so. Then add fennel, anise, and red pepper flakes and stir for a minute or so. Add tomato paste and stir for several minutes, letting it coat the bottom of the pan and get a little brown. Let the sugars caramelize. Splash in red wine. Add crushed tomatoes then olives and brine. Splash in some fish sauce. Cover, turn heat to low, let simmer for at least 20-30 minutes, preferably longer.
Meanwhile make the cheese filling.
1 15 oz container of ricotta
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup mixed grated Italian cheeses of your choice (I found one that had parmesan, Romano, fontina, mozzarella, and provolone)
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup parsley
2 Tablespoons fresh basil chopped fine
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
ground black pepper
(I had some leftover garlic and herb cheese spread, I threw that in
And 1/4 cup of whole milk yogurt because it seemed too thick
If I’d had mascarpone I’d add that
You can add other herbs as you wish, mint is good)
Mix until completely blended.
Assemble the Shells
Boil water and cook shells according to direction, maybe a minute less than the box says, I like them pretty al dente. When they’re done, spread them on a metal sheet pan to cool for about 10 minutes or until you can pick them up without burning your fingers.
Spread some sauce over the bottom of a 13×9 pan to cover. (Or you can use a larger pan if you have one. I ended up with extra shells, which I gave to the kids.)
Fill shells and place them in the pan, cheese side up.
Spread some sauce over the top.
Sprinkle generously with more mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Really, it’s hard to put too much cheese on top.
Bake at 400F for 30 minutes.
Best if you let them sit for at least 20-30 minutes before serving.