Spinach and Ricotta are long revered to as some of the key Italian staple ingredients. Together, when combined with ample seasoning, these two ingredients form the most widely-used filling for pasta ripiena, or filled pasta. Today, we will be using Conchiglioni - gargantuan pasta shells; the big brother to better-known conchiglie.
After they’ve been hand-stuffed with this delectable filling, the sumptuous conchiglioni, are laid together in a tray, covered and baked with a grated cheese topping until they emerge from the oven - forno in Italian, giving us the term al forno - with a supremely crunchy, burnished crust.
For the filling:
- 400 g of Ricotta cheese (alternatively, replace with homemade Cottage Cheese / paneer)
- 250 g fresh Spinach leaves
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Salt and Pepper for seasoning
- Nutmeg powder (optional)
For the Sauce:
- 1tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 onions, finely sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 8-10 medium sized tomatoes, chopped
- 1tbsp tomato purée
- Fresh Basil leaves, roughly torn
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Boil the pasta shells, in well-salted water, halfway through the mentioned time on the packaging, drain and rinse with cold water. Set them aside at room temperature.
- Set the oven on pre-heat at 200° C.
- In a large pan, fry onions and garlic in olive oil until they turn translucent.
- Next, add in the chopped tomatoes and let them simmer on medium heat, covered for 20 minutes. Stir at regular intervals and mash up gradually as they begin to disintegrate in the pan. Continue stirring and mashing until you achieve spoonable consistency.
- Season the sauce with plenty of salt and pepper and add in the roughly torn basil leaves in the last five minutes of cooking, unleashing their full flavour into the sauce. Turn off the flame and set it aside to cool down.
- Blanch the spinach leaves and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Then, finely chop them and add into a large mixing bowl.
- Next, mix in the ricotta cheese (or alternatively, homemade Cottage Cheese / paneer), ensuring it’s thoroughly incorporated. Season the spinach mixture with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside to rest.
- In a large overproof dish, line the base with half of the hearty tomato sauce you have prepared.
- Using a long spoon or optionally a piping bag if you are comfortable, individually fill each shell with a generous portion of the spinach and ricotta mix and layer on top of the tomato sauce (open side up) so that the base of the dish is covered.
- Spoon the rest of the sauce on top of the pasta shells, top them with grated Mozzarella cheese and fresh Parsley leaves.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes at 180°C until a golden crust has formed.