Sunday, November 19, 2006

Just like an Italian mamma...

You know when you have it in mind to do one particular recipe, and even though you don't get around to it, and it is not in your consciousness all the time, you find that at the right moment you see yourself shopping for all the ingredients to make it. That is they way it was with Nigella's Baked Pasta Shells with Ricotta and Spinach. For some reason, I never had all the ingredients at the same time, even though they are not that difficult to get. If I had passata and spinach, I didn't have the jumbo pasta shells. If I had the pasta shells, I didn't have ricotta... and on and on.

Saturday, we did a big shopping run to get ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast. Even though I didn't have the recipe for the baked pasta shells right in front of me, somehow I knew what I neeeded. It must have been that I have been looking at the recipe for 2 years now! Oh, it's in Forever Summer, by the way.

So I got frozen, chopped spinach. I got a huge tub of ricotta and my favorite Italian passata.

I was recently inspired to have an Italian dish, such as this one, after watching Jamie Oliver on his Italian adventures. The last episode I saw was how he had a bolognese-making contest at a village square. Each Italian mamma had her own recipe, and no doubt, all of the sauces, including Jamie's, were probably fantastic.

I felt like being the nurturer, the provider today.

The recipe is in three parts. The best thing about it, though, is that each part could be made at different times, based on when the cook has a free moment, or even all at once. Before baking, the assembled shells could even stay in the fridge for a bit. This would be a great meal for an intimate dinner party. You know, the ones where you invite just one or two people, and you're all sharing a tray of pasta bake. I like those parties more than anything else, I think. But, for some reason, they don't happen too often for me.

So, for the recipe, you make the tomato sauce by sweating onions and garlic and then adding passata, or chopped tomatoes, and water. This is left to bubble and simmer away. The filling for the pasta shells is just some ricotta with eggs, parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg. I had some fantastic fresh mozzarella lying around, so I added this too. The thawed and thoroughly drained spinach is added last to the ricotta mixture. Then, the pasta is boiled until al dente, and all three elements meet in a baking pan.

(Here are the unbaked shells before the addition of the yummy sauce.)

(And after baking... delicious!)

After tasting the shells, I understood why Nigella included this dish in her summer eating book. This dish is not heavy at all. The ricotta provides a light-as-a-feather element to the meal, and the sauce is simple and not overpowering.

I had about a cup of filling leftover, and not being one to waste food, I concocted an impromptu apertif to our Italian late-lunch.

To the filling I added a couple of tablespoons of flour, some panko bread crumbs and a bit more salt. I dolloped this filling onto to an oiled pan, and proceeded to make my version of savory ricotta fritters.

These were fantastic as well. We dolloped on some sour cream to cut the richness of the fritters. I was really impressed that I could come up with something so unexpectedly delicious in such short time.

The making of an Italian mamma..

Baked Pasta Shells with Ricotta and Spinach --
Forever Summer

1 clove garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
48 ounces canned or bottled tomato puree
1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach (or one 10-ounce package frozen
chopped spinach, thawed and thoroughly drained)
18 ounces (2 1/4 cups) ricotta
2 eggs, beaten
4 ounces Parmesan
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
1 pound large pasta shells

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a very large saucepan, gently fry the garlic and onion in the oil for about 5 – 10 minutes until translucent. Add the tomato purée and refill the cans with water about three-quarters full, giving them a shake to mop up any tomato. This will give you about 4 1/2 cups water.
Add it to the pan. Bring the sauce to the boil and then partially cover and simmer for about 25 minutes. Soak the fresh spinach in the sink to get rid of any mud, drain, and then cook in just the water that’s still clinging to the leaves until it has wilted down and cooked through, then drain well and chop roughly (you canjust go at it with scissors while it’s sitting in the colander.) If you’re using frozen chopped spinach, make sure – once it’s thawed – that you’ve pressed out every last bit or water; you can also use frozen leaf spinach, and chop it yourself once it’s thawed and drained.

Empty the ricotta into a bowl, add the eggs and then grate in about 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) of the Parmesan. Add the spinach when it is cool, squeezing out (again) any excess water with your hands, then stir everything together and season it well with the nutmeg and salt and pepper. Cook the pasta shells in a large pan of water, for about 5 minutes once they have come back to the boil, then drain and leave them to get cool enough for you to stuff them without burning your fingers. Tip the shells into a dish, of approximately 15 x 13 inches, so that they lie in a single layer, then fill each shell with a heaped teaspoon of the spinach and ricotta filling. Ladle the tomato sauce over the pasta, and grate over the remaining Parmesan.
Bake for about 20 – 30 minutes, by which time the pasta will be tender and the light tomato sauce hot and bubbling. Remove from the oven and let stand for a while to cool down slightly before serving.

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

Mmm Ilana, I have never made that recipe because despite Nigella's claims to the contrary, it sounds rich. It's good to know that it is actually light and summery. I've made spinach and ricotta lasagne and cannelloni, and ravioli, all of which have been lovely (but hardly light). I think I imagined more tomato sauce, drowning the shells - your photo looks so good and makes me want to try them!... never mind the fritters (I love the courgette fritters in Forever Summer and yours look even better!!)
How are the Thanksgiving plans going?

Kathryn x