Sometimes in the process of writing a column and a cookbook and a food blog, my mind gets so jumbled with recipe inspirations and ideas that I can't see straight.
I have random notes jotted down on scrap pieces of paper all over the house and even more notes on my iPhone and computer. My grocery list says "curry" in all caps off to the side, not because I want to buy curry powder or curry paste, but because I wanted to remind myself to develop a curry recipe last week, which I never did manage to accomplish. Beneath curry it says "brown butter" because I had an inspiration for a dessert recipe using brown butter in the middle of the night and I didn't want to forget it.
Then, last night, when it came time to make dinner, my mind went completely blank. At a loss, I turned to my fiancée and asked, "What do you feel like for dinner?"
"Stuffed shells," she suggested, after a moment.
I hadn't had stuffed shells in years and years and had never developed a recipe for them. I felt inspired. It was something I probably would never have come up with on my own. The cravings of the people around me are most often my greatest motivation. Almost immediately, my mind swirled and began building flavors … spinach … artichokes … lemon zest … ricotta. As we cooked together in the kitchen, I jotted down quantities and ingredients in black pen on the envelope of a wedding RSVP. On the other side of the envelope, below the stamp, is my to-do list for the next day: quinoa, shoes, coffee. What a beautiful mess.
As I held a big pastry bag bursting with filling, she stood beside me, passing cooked jumbo shells, one by one. "Is this going in the column or the cookbook?" She asked me over the music — Van Morrison, I think. "We'll see," I said, then added, "The column, I'm guessing."
When the stuffed shells came out of the oven, I dished up four of them for each of us. The cheese inside was steaming hot, almost too hot to eat. "I love the lemon in this," I remarked. "And the spicy marinara brings it all together," I concluded. When we had cleaned our plates, we both went back for two more shells each.
Note: I went in a bright and fresh springtime direction with this recipe, with the flavors of artichoke and spinach, and a pop of citrus, in a spicy marinara sauce. However, you could easily take this in a heartier direction by using a meat sauce. I would recommend a zesty Italian sausage.
Spinach and artichoke stuffed shells
6 ounces jumbo shell pasta
2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
6.5 ounces marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese, divided
15 ounces ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups marinara sauce (spicy recommended), divided
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13- by 9-inch baking dish.
Place a large pot full of salted water over high heat and bring to a boil. Cook the jumbo shells until al dente according to package directions, about 9 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.
While the pasta is cooking, make the filling. To a mixing bowl, add the spinach, artichokes, lemon zest and juice, Parmesan, 1 cup of the mozzarella, and ricotta cheese. Add in the egg, garlic powder, salt and a generous pinch of black pepper. Fold the ingredients together until well combined. Scoop the filling into a pastry bag with a large opening.
Spoon 1 cup of marinara sauce into the bottom of the prepared baking dish, spreading evenly to coat. When the pasta is ready, fill each shell with the spinach and artichoke filling, and place the shells into rows in the marinara sauce, cheese side up. Spoon the remaining marinara over top of the shells. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese. Cover the dish with foil and bake 30 minutes. Remove the foil, turn the oven up to broil, and cook another 5-7 minutes, or until the cheese and shells begin to brown on the edges. Serve.
Maya Wilson lives in Kenai and blogs about food at alaskafromscratch.com. Have a food question or recipe request? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and your inquiry may appear in a future column.