Sassy Stuffed Shells

12 Nov

The time in my life that I most closely associate with the quintessential American childhood is the nearly four years my family spent based at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, NE.  I’m not going to say that Omaha was the coolest place I’ve ever lived.  However, freshly returned from two years in Europe, where we had no Saturday morning cartoons and no trick-or-treating, our tract home in Bellevue, NE was pretty much Norman Rockwellesque to my brother and me.  There were school buses, lots of other kids, girl scouts, and games of Ghost in the Graveyard at twilight.  It was good.

During that time in my life, roughly ages eight to twelve, I had a couple of really close “best” friends with whom I don’t recall ever having any serious disagreements.  Their names were Kristine and Kim, and they lived in the same cul-de-sac a few streets away from me.  We biked, played outside, did crafts, and sold girl scout cookies together.  You know – pretty squeaky clean fun.


Kristine, Kim, and me with our girl scout counselor at winter camp in Council Bluffs, Iowa

When my family was transferred to Northern, CA before my eighth grade year (a pretty horrible year in my life, predictably, as anyone who was ever the “new kid” in eighth grade will attest) I saw my two friends for the last time.  We exchanged a few letters but, as people will do, we eventually lost touch.  That was a quarter of a century ago.

Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I became reconnected with one of those friends about two years ago – Kristine.  She was married, with two kids, and teaching music in Texas.  To my delight, she mailed me a month ago and said she was coming on a business trip to my area this week.  It turned out her hotel was only three miles away.

So I have these two unruly boys to care for, but I wanted to make something nice for dinner.  Kristine said she ate “everything,” so I was gloriously free to choose any dish I liked.  What could be prepared in increments throughout the day, between childcare chores, preschool pick-ups and drop-offs, and other interruptions?  What could I have nearly ready to bake, even though I was unsure of Kristine’s exact arrival time?  I decided on a wonderful recipe for Baked Shells that I had discovered years ago in an issue of Cooking Light.

Now, I realize that you don’t come to me here for some link to a Cooking Light recipe, but I am sharing this dish for a few really good reasons (I think):

  • It is not hard to make, even though “stuffed shells” seems really intimidating to some
  • It is not expensive
  • It’s diet-friendly (and, yes, I did say STUFFED SHELLS).  The feta adds amazing punch.
  • You can make it ahead
  • It’s delicious

Also, I have made some adjustments to the recipe that I wanted to share, for those of you who would like to attempt it.  If you would like to see the original recipe, it is here.  I have changed a few ingredients either because they were easier to find or because I felt they enhanced the recipe (although some are small sacrifices to the diet).  For example, I think fat free cream cheese is an abomination, so I always substitute low fat.  But you can stick to the original recipe if you are seriously dieting.

Baked Shells Stuffed with Artichoke, Spinach and Feta

1  teaspoon  dried oregano

1/4  cup  chopped pepperoncini peppers (you find these in a jar in the Italian aisle)  I actually use about twice this much because we like it zippy.  You don’t need to rinse them – just cut off the stems.

1  (28-ounce) can crushed or ground tomatoes

1 (14-ounce) can of fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (undrained)

1  (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1  cup  (4 ounces) shredded Italian cheese, divided

1  cup  (4 ounces) crumbled feta cheese

1/2  cup  (4 ounces) low-fat cream cheese, softened

1/4  teaspoon  freshly ground black pepper

1 (14-oz) can of artichoke hearts in brine (NOT OIL!) chopped

1/2  (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed dry

2  garlic cloves, minced

1 box of jumbo (not just large – JUMBO!) shells.

Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 375°.

Boil the shells in a nice, big pot to al dente (the lower end of the possible cooking time) and then gently lift them out with a slotted spoon or, if you dump them in a colander, do it carefully.  Separate them on a tray to drain.  It’s good to put a towel under them to soak up liquid or it can cause them to keep cooking and get mushy.  Set aside.

Combine first 5 ingredients in a medium saucepan.

Mmmm...zippy little peppers!

Place over medium heat; cook 12 minutes or until slightly thick, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; set aside.

Combine 1/2 cup shredded cheese and the next 6 ingredients (through garlic) in a medium bowl.

Mixing it up...

Spoon or pipe (from a plastic bag) about 1 1/2 tablespoons cheese mixture into each pasta shell.  Frankly, I find the spoon much simpler and it works fine.

See? So easy.

Spray a 9 x 13-in. pyrex dish with cooking spray.  Smear some sauce over the bottom of the dish.  I find this prevents the noodles from drying and sticking (just like you do with lasagna).

Just enough to keep 'em hydrated...

Spoon the rest of the tomato mixture over shells; sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup of cheese (I splurge and use probably twice that – but that’s a dieting dilemma!).  If you do a good job of handling your shells gently, you may even have enough to fill another small casserole, which you can cover, freeze, and bake at a later date.  BONUS!

Bake at 375° for 25 minutes or until thoroughly heated and cheese melts.  No – you don’t need to cover the dish.

Everything worked out perfectly.  I was able to refrigerate the shells and just remove them from the oven to warm up a little before popping them in the oven when Kristine arrived.

We had already eaten some!

We served it up with a nice green salad and had an absolutely delightful dinner…except for the weird part where I remembered at the last minute to take pictures of the serving dish at the table.  I’m hoping my old friend was willing to overlook that strange behavior.  This picture really doesn’t do them justice, but you have to agree that if I’d hauled lighting over, etc., it would have been pretty inconsiderate!  Cut me some slack this time.

And how was it seeing my childhood buddy again after all these years?  As Kristine pointed out, it could have been weird and awkward.  So much has happened in our lives.  Degrees have been earned, jobs have been found and lost, and families have grown and changed around us. To my delight, though, I found her to be a wonderfully grown-up version of the friend of my midwestern memories.  Funny, down-to-earth, wise, and easy to talk to.

As I dropped Kristine back at her hotel, I thought what a shame it was that we no longer lived within biking distance of each other.  You can never go back, of course, and I don’t want to be ten-years-old again.  But I am very glad to have had this dinner to reconnect with the girl I remember so fondly.  A dear childhood friend who grows up with you, instead of away from you, is a true friend, indeed.


5 Responses to “Sassy Stuffed Shells”

  1. Nat November 12, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    Looks really good. An excellent idea to reduce the usual quantities of cheese by using a high ratio of vegetables and stronger tasting cheeses. Must try this soon.

    • frazzledfoodie November 12, 2010 at 3:51 pm #

      It works, too. You won’t think it’s “healthy.”

  2. Rachel Roland November 12, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

    The recipe looks so good! And I love the story of two childhood friends reconnecting, too!!

    • frazzledfoodie November 12, 2010 at 3:51 pm #

      Definitely try it if you ever get a bountiful basket full of…spinach and artichoke. 😉

  3. Kristine November 13, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    Oh, wow, your post actually made me tear up a little. *sniffle* I had a great time – thank you for your truly gracious hospitality. Your home is so cozy and welcoming and your family is beautiful. I remember the years that you, Kim and I were friends together as the best of my childhood. And all hail the power of Facebook for letting old friends reconnect after all this time. 🙂

    Like I said, people don’t often come to Houston on purpose, but I hope a happy accident will bring you there to visit sometime. Thanks again.

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