There is something about ricotta cheese I simply adore. Maybe it’s the way it cradles companion flavors, softens the tone and enriches the texture of any dish. Or maybe it is the way ricotta partners with a layer of sauce, balancing the nuance of herbs, acidic tomato, and meat. In these Cheese & Spinach Stuffed Shells it is the anchor, humbly filling the background so the spinach, garlic, and Parmesan capture your attention. Yes, the ricotta is why I love stuffed pasta shells—for all its cheesy goodness.
As much as the wonderful cheesiness of stuffed shells entices me, it has been awhile since we’ve had stuffed pasta shells because we primarily eat gluten-free pasta. Over the last couple of years we have tried a few terrific gluten-free pastas, though that did mean going through some less than satisfying options too. Of those brands we enjoy, the only drawback is the limited shapes from which to choose. Lasagna, manicotti, or large shells are nearly impossible to find, so when I saw these large shells by Tinkyáda, it was time to resurrect my old recipe and give it a whirl.
Luckily we already had the perfect sauce to top the shells, there was one package of Bolognese still in the freezer from my last sauce marathon. (Thanks Mom, for doing the freezer inventory so I knew it was in there.)
Gluten-free pasta can be very delicate and easy to overcook, but that was not an issue with this pasta. In fact, it remained slightly underdone even after cooking for the full recommended time on the package and 45 minutes of baking time. I guess they mean it when they say, “The good texture of Tinkyáda can withstand quite a bit of over-cooking.” Overall, this gluten-free pasta was a satisfying substitute for regular large shell pasta and delivered on its cheese-filled duties. (For regional readers, I found these at Vitamin Cottage.)
Of course, you can use regular large pasta shells for this recipe by cooking it a couples minutes under the time given on the package—it finishes cooking in the oven.
In this particular recipe, I did not make my own ricotta, though homemade is preferred. If you would like to make your own, my blogger friend, John, at From The Bartolini Kitchens has an easy and straightforward recipe for ricotta. Otherwise, I recommend buying whole milk ricotta. Make sure the spinach is relatively dry and not watery, draining as needed, before adding to the cheese—you don’t want to water down the richness of the cheese filling. After all, the spinach is a nice addition, but the cheese is why we’re here to eat stuffed shells, right?!
This dish can be prepared in advance and frozen for a convenient weeknight dinner or portioned out in smaller single servings. To do so, place the filled shells on a wax paper lined rimmed baking sheet and freeze. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag to keep until ready to use. When baking frozen shells, extend the foil-covered baking time by 20-25 minutes before topping with cheese to finish uncovered.
Three classic Italian cheeses stuffed inside large shell brown rice pasta with spinach and dressed in meaty Bolognese needs little more than a nice medium-bodied red wine to make dinnertime the best part of the day.
Cheese & Spinach Stuffed Pasta Shells [Gluten-Free]
- 8 ounces large shell pasta -- gluten-free
- salt for cooking water
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic -- minced
- 1/4 cup green onion -- white and light green part finely chopped
- 9 ounces fresh spinach -- wilted and chopped
- 15 ounces ricotta cheese
- 2 whole eggs -- beaten
- 1 generous pinch nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese -- grated
- 2 cups mozzarella cheese -- grated , divided into 1 cup measurements
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley -- finely chopped
- 3 cups tomato or meat sauce
- Parmesan cheese -- grated for serving
- Preheat oven to 375° Prepare pasta according to package directions, adding 2-3 teaspoons of salt to the cooking water; drain and rinse with cold water.
- If using Tinkyada brown rice shells, cook for the maximum time recommended on the package. [If using regular wheat pasta shells, undercook by a couple of minutes.]
- To keep pasta from drying out, allow to sit briefly in cool water until ready to use.
- While pasta is cooking, add olive oil, garlic, green onions, and spinach to a large skillet and cook over medium heat until onion and garlic are softened and spinach is wilted.
- If spinach seems watery, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain and cool. Once cooled slightly, coarsely chop spinach.
- In medium bowl, blend Ricotta, eggs, nutmeg, salt, and pepper until well mixed. Stir in parmesan and mozzarella cheeses until combined. Fold in parsley and chopped spinach with onions and garlic.
- Put cheese mixture in a resealable plastic bag (quart size may be easier to handle). Cut one bottom corner of the bag to create a quarter sized whole. Place corner of bag into the opening of the pasta shells and squeeze bag to fill pasta. (At this point the recipe can be frozen.)
- Arrange filled shells in a 13 × 9-inch baking dish.
- Spoon sauce over the shells and cover tightly with foil. Bake covered for 30 minutes, uncover and sprinkle with 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, and bake for 10-15 minutes until cheese is melted and beginning to brown.
Note: While Tinkyáda does offer a wider variety of shapes for good rice pasta, it is not our preferred brand for more common pasta shapes like spaghetti, small shells, or spirals. Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta, and Jovial Brand are excellent gluten-free pasta products. Also, I was not compensated or provided product for this post, it is simply my opinion and I love passing along good things to my readers—I appreciate you and hope this is helpful.