Stuffed Shells with Italian Sausage Tomato Sauce
Today we present two recipes in one (long) post, mostly because our last post was pretty much devoid of any culinary content. (This is a food blog, after all, folks!) First, we made a tomato sauce with spicy Italian sausage, and in the past we’ve served this meaty sauce over simple pasta. On this night, however, we decided to make some stuffed shells — a favorite Italian meal from when I was growing up. Our recipe made enough for leftovers this week, plus additional shells for the freezer for yet another meal later.
The tomato sauce with Italian sausage is basically the same recipe for our quick tomato sauce, but with the addition of Italian sausage and red wine. We also had some fresh oregano in the garden, so we added some of that as well.
Start with 2 or 3 Italian sausages. You can use hot or mild, depending on your preference — we like a spicy sauce, so we opted for hot. Remove the sausage from the casing by cutting each sausage lengthwise with a knife. Just cut enough to break through the casing – don’t cut the sausage all the way through.
To remove the casing, bend each sausage in half in the middle, and the casing begins to separate on its own.
Then pull the sausage casing off and throw it away. Casing are, to be honest, really gross, and you should throw the sausage casings away before you spend much time thinking of all the bratwurst and hotdogs you have eaten in your life. Trust me on this.
Heat a medium-sized pan over medium heat and add the sausage insides. There’s no need for any olive oil because the sausage will provide its own fat for the sauce.
Cook the sausage until it is well browned, using a wooden spoon occasionally to break the sausage into smaller pieces.
As the sausage cooks, prepare the oregano by removing the leaves from the stems. (We do the same thing when we cook with fresh thyme.) Then chop it up.
The Italian sausage, browned and ready, with some crispy bits accumulating on the sides of the pan.
Add some chopped onion to the sausage and cook for a few minutes, then add some chopped garlic and cook for another minute or so, until the garlic begins to smell amazing.
Because the Italian sausage creates some very crusty bits in the pan, we like to deglaze the pan with a few glugs of red wine. This step is optional, in case you don’t have any red wine handy. But bonus if you do, because you really should serve this meal with a nice dry Italian red.
Using a wooden spoon, scrape up any browned sausage bits from the sides of the pan. This makes the final sauce so much more flavorful.
Add some crushed tomatoes, a half cup of water, some chopped fresh oregano and a bay leaf, then simmer for at least a half an hour. This is an easy sauce that makes your entire kitchen smell fantastic.
While you can serve this sauce over any kind of pasta, this night we opted for stuffed shells. The ingredients include jumbo pasta shells, ricotta cheese (we like part skim), fresh mozzarella, parmesan, a single egg, basil, and some more oregano.
Put a large pot of salted water on the stove, covered, to boil the shells. Then crack the egg in a medium bowl and whisk the egg quickly with a fork.
Roughly chop up whatever herbs you remembered to purchase. We had basil and oregano tonight, but parsley would also be a nice addition. You could use dried herbs, but fresh ones are always better in a ricotta filling.
After adding the herbs to the egg, add the ricotta. We used about 2/3 of the large container. (I typically prefer not to measure ingredients, unless I am baking or making pizza crust, where exact measurements are needed.)
The pot of salted water should be boiling by now, ready for the shells. Only cook the shells about 75% of the package recommended time, since they will finish cooking in the oven. This package of shells said to cook for 12-15 minutes, so we boiled the shells for about 10 minutes.
Shred some parmesan cheese. If your parm has a rind, don’t throw it away! The rind can be used for all sorts of recipes, like a chicken cacciatore that we will eventually post. We keep parmesan rinds in a sealed bag in the refrigerator.
Add the shredded parmesan, a generous pinch of salt, and some freshly ground black pepper, then stir the shell stuffing all together to combine well.
Drain the partially-cooked shells in a collander and run some cold water over them to cool the shells so you can stuff them.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and add a layer of the sauce to the bottom of a 9×13 inch baking pan.
Stuff the shells with about a tablespoon and a half of the ricotta filling per shell — enough to fill it completely, but not so much that it doesn’t close.
After you stuff each shell, add it to the pan with sauce, seam side down.
An entire pan of shells, happily stuffed with ricotta mixture goodness…
Spoon the remaining meaty tomato sauce over the tops of the shells, covering them as evenly as possible.
We had some leftover fresh mozzarella cheese in the fridge, so we sliced it up and added on top of the shells.
Finally, shred some additional parmesan cheese over the top of the shells.
Our cheesy shells with Italian sausage sauce, ready to pop in the oven.
Even though our shell pan was full, we still had some leftover pasta shells and some ricotta filling, so we decided to fill those shells and freeze them for a later time. In doing so, I came up with a better way to stuff the shells. I added the remaining ricotta to a resealable quart-sized bag, cut off one of the corners of the bag, and squeezed the ricotta mixture out of the bag into the shells. Upon reflection, this is a much, much easier way to stuff the shells. If only I had thought of it a bit earlier, before the entire pan of shells was completed.
Again, this was much easier than stuffing shells with a spoon. And less messy.
We added the extra shells to a plate and placed them in the freezer.
Back to our dinner. After about half an hour in the oven, the stuffed shells are ready.
Shells with Italian sausage sauce, as well as some amazing garlic bread. Our entire kitchen smelled like Italian goodness at this point.
Once the left-over shells were frozen, we needed to package them up to store in the freezer. Next time, we’ll place a piece of parchment paper on the plate before it goes in the freezer — to keep the frozen shells from sticking to the plate. Luckily, we were able to use a butter knife to pry the frozen shells from the plate.
We pried removed the shells from the plate and sealed them in a freezer bag to use for dinner some other time.
Lengthy post this time, but consider it worthwhile if you learned a little something from our mistakes (using a makeshift pastry bag to stuff the shells and parchment paper to keep them from sticking while freezing). And, just in case the post wasn’t long enough already, here are the recipes…
Tomato Sauce with Italian Sausage
- 2-3 Italian sausages (hot or mild, it’s up to you)
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 2-5 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
- a few glugs of dry red wine (optional)
- 1 bay leaf
- 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Remove the sausages from their casings, add the sausage to the Dutch oven and cook until browned, about 8 minutes. Add the onion, stir, and cook a few minutes. Add the garlic, stir and cook a few more minutes.
Add the red wine to deglaze the Dutch oven, and stir up the browned bits. Add the bay leaf, crushed tomatoes, and half a cup of water. Heat to a simmer and then reduce to low heat and cook for approximately 30 minutes.
- 1 box large pasta shells
- 1 egg
- 2 cups ricotta cheese (we use part-skim)
- 1/2 cup grated or shredded parmesan cheese
- fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley), chopped
- Quick Tomato Sauce or Tomato Sauce with Italian Sausage
- 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded or thinly sliced
Boil a large pot of salted water, and cook the stuffed shells until they are 3/4 of the way done. (Our box of shells recommended boiling for 12 minutes, so we boiled them for 9 minutes.) Drain the shells and run them under cold water for a few seconds to cool them off.
While the shells are boiling, crack the egg into a medium bowl, and whisk for a few seconds with a fork. Add the ricotta, parmesan, herbs, a good pinch of salt and some freshly ground pepper, and stir well to combine.
Preheat the oven to 350. Add some sauce to the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish. One at a time, add approximately a tablespoon and a half of the ricotta filling to each shell, and place the shell seam side down onto the pan. Spoon the remaining sauce over the top of the shells, add the remaining cheese, and bake in the oven for approximately half an hour, until the cheese is nice and bubbly.