Baked Stuffed Shells
An American (or, Italian-American) classic in Paris
A while back, I had a craving for a meatball sandwich. Depending on where you grew up, they might be called meatball subs or meatball hoagies, but where I grew up, they were meatball grinders. There’s a regional dialect quiz you can take online (NYT, quiz may be behind paywall) that tags your speech patterns and can tell where you grew up. When Question 24 comes up, you’re asked what call a long sandwich, “grinder,” vs. “sub,” etc., the ruse was up, and based on that one word, they nailed me right away.
Nowadays, we have the internet to dissect, discuss, and debate all those terms, but back then, we were oblivious to online bickering and enjoyed them—no matter what they were called. The best was from a pizzeria near where we lived called Dino’s, like the cartoon dinosaur. They also made a corned beef grinder that I thought was the best thing I ever ate, although I didn’t realize they were still in business but have moved and are now stuffing the sandwiches with pastrami. (Another clue that I grew up in New England: There was a small-ball candlepin bowling alley nearby, too.)
Right after I posted about the sandwich, I ran into a woman at a shop in Paris who came up to me and said, “David, you know what?… I was craving the exact same thing when you posted that!” It’s funny how that works.
So when I invited a friend for dinner (who’d grown up near me, but we’d never met until I came to Paris), I decided to make baked stuffed shells. I don’t know what kids get fed now in school, but baked shells were a staple of elementary school cafeteria cooking in my youth. For some reason, there were also half-sandwiches on white bread that were filled with either butter or peanut butter, handed out in waxed paper envelopes, and Jeff Sherman and I used to see who could flatten theirs the most using the side of our fists, making us obvious precursors to smashburgers.
It’s likely that the other students lined up with their cafeteria trays weren’t as focused as I was; when it was my turn to stand in front of the steel hotel pans of filled shells, enveloped by a thick tomato sauce and topped with rubbery cheese, roasting under the heat lamps, I secretly hoped the stiffly coifed (circa 1960s) women yielding their stainless spoons would scrape around the edges of the pan when plating mine up, handing me a plate with as many of the crustier bits from the edges as possible.
I don’t know if they have the same line-up-for-lunch activity in French schools, but often American media portrays the school lunches in France as being served by chefs in starched toques, which isn’t quite how my French friends remember their school lunches. One told me, with a screwed-up expression on his face, that his worst school lunch memory was beef tongue stewed in gloppy tomato sauce. (And no mention of flattening sandwiches, either.) The good news is that it does seem like things are changing, at least from the menus I see posted outside of elementary schools in Paris, where I don’t see beef tongue listed as an option.
Years later, I taught Romain how to rummage through the bacon at self-service hotel breakfast buffets to pull out the crispiest rashers. That strategy never occurred to him. He also loved the salad bar when I took him to one at Whole Foods in the U.S., and at first he was miffed that there was nothing like it in France. But then he reasoned that it wouldn’t really work here as people would figure out a way to get around “the system.”
The idea of “help yourself,” though, is more mainstream in France since the days of getting your hand smacked if you touched an apple at the market. Yet after I trained him, I realized the error of my ways, and now I make sure I get into the buffet bacon line before him, which is a challenge as his line-cutting abilities are unparalleled.
While one doesn’t normally associate Paris with baked stuffed shells, my friend was thrilled when I told him what was on the menu. When trying to make baked ziti recently, I learned that the dried pasta selection is a little different here than there. I’m no expert on Italian pasta and assumed ziti and penne were different, but they seem to settle any differences in France and just call quills of dried pasta penne ziti.
Since I’m not into labels as much as other folks, I tend to choose ingredients by sight, so I went to Biocoop, a good natural food store, and got the largest shells I could find.
In the land of superb cheese, almost all the mozzarella cheese you find in France is of the fresh type, meaning moist balls packed in liquid, often made with buffalo milk. I love those as much as Parisians love burrata, which is trending as hard as Aperol Spritzes in Paris, but they aren’t quite right for a filling or topping as they’re quite wet. So I tracked down mozzarella cuisine (mozzarella for cooking) at the supermarché, which goes by mozzarella cucina in Italy. In the U.S., it’s referred to as low-moisture mozzarella.
I kept my baked stuffed shells pretty straightforward, although I made my own quick tomato sauce**, rather than using store-bought. But I think if you have a brand you like, you could use that. In the U.S., Rao’s seems to top everyone’s list of the best. Prepared tomato sauces aren’t as varied and widespread in France** as they are in American supermarket aisles, but if there’s one you like, you can use that.
Baked Stuffed Shells
I used a 2 liter (2 quart) French oval gratin dish. Depending on the exact dimensions of your dish, you may have a couple of extra shells that you just can’t squeeze in. Those can be baked separately with a little tomato sauce and cheese, or frozen for later.
Ricotta in France comes in 250-gram containers whereas in the States, they are 1-pound, hence the 450-500 gram spread. The difference is negligible in the recipe, but whole-milk ricotta has a creamier texture than skim, so I go with whole milk.
1 pound (450-500g) ricotta, preferably whole milk
1 large egg
1/2 cup (30g) chopped soft, aromatic herbs, such as parsley, tarragon, mint, chives, basil, and sage (all of the same, or a mix; your choice)
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt or kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups (8 ounces, 230g) grated low-moisture mozzarella
1 1/2 cups (3 ounces, 75g) grated Parmesan cheese
12 ounces (350g) large, shell-shaped pasta
3 cups (750ml) tomato sauce
In a medium bowl, mash together the ricotta, egg, herbs, lemon zest, salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Mix in half of the mozzarella cheese and half of the grated Parmesan.
Cook the shells in boiling salted water until they’re cooked a little less than al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Lightly oil a 2-quart (2L) gratin or baking dish with olive oil. Spread half of the tomato sauce over the bottom of the baking dish.
Using a spoon, fill each shell with the ricotta mixture about two-thirds full, and place them together snugly over the tomato sauce in the gratin dish as you go.
Spoon and spread the remaining tomato sauce over the shells, and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.
Cover the dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 20 minutes. If you’d like to get the shells and cheese browner on top, turn on the broiler and continue cooking the shells until the top is well-browned. (If using a broiler, make sure your baking dish can stand up to the heat. Most glass dishes aren’t meant to be used with the broiler.)
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*Many years ago when I was in Italy, I remarked online about the various styles and types of tomato sauces I’d seen in specialty food stores and supermarkets. A reader advised me that no one in Italy would ever dream of buying prepared tomato sauce, and when I asked who bought all those jars of sauces I’d seen, he replied, “Tourists.” Judging by the quantity and variety of tomato sauces I saw in Italy, they’re very (very) popular with tourists. Who knew tourists were stocking up on tomato sauce in Italy?
**I made a quick tomato sauce by sautéing 4 cloves of thinly sliced garlic in olive oil, adding a chopped anchovy or three (optional, but good), then adding a big can (28 ounce/800g/3 1/2 cups) of crushed plum tomatoes along with a few tablespoons of tomato paste, seasoning it with salt and pepper and a small spoonful of Calabrian chili paste, although a sprinkling of red pepper flakes is fine to use if you only have those, and cooking it at a steady simmer, stirring occasionally until the sauce is thickened but still juicy, about 10 to 15 minutes.
(Disclaimer: I may have added a bit of extra tomato sauce I had lurking in my freezer, so if you want to follow my instructions above, you might want to add some additional crushed tomatoes — perhaps a 14oz/400g can — to get to 3 cups. But if you’re close by using 28oz/800g, I think you’ll be fine.)
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My store, which had dozens of brands and shapes of pasta, didn’t have a single box of shells! So I bought manicotti. Do I have to make any changes in the recipe? Thank you.
I made my own sauce and then proceeded with the recipe. The baked stuffed shells turned out well and it was easy to make. It turned out to be a delightful dinner.