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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stuffed Shells With Butternut Squash, Spinach, and Parmesan Cheese (Lots of Cheese)

Once again, I need to bow to the gods of Pinterest. I have been staring at a recipe for stuffed shells that incorporates a lot of my favorite flavors: Butternut squash, spinach, cheese. You do know about my obsession with all things cheese, right? What I'm not a fan of is ricotta cheese. I know. I'm Italian and I'm supposed to love all things Italian. I don't even know why I don't like it; I just don't. Seeing as it's a main ingredient in this dish, I knew I had to really flavor it in order to get past it. That's exactly what I did. The recipe originates from this website.  This is a great vegetarian meal to make when you don't feel like eating any meat. And truthfully, after Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving leftovers, I'm just about done with poultry for a bit.

To make this dish is pretty easy. You just need to make sure and complete the steps as they come, otherwise some things will be done before others. Who wants mushy pasta because you're still getting your filling together? Not me. I added more or less of the ingredients to my taste, and I used a lot of what I already had. This is a running theme throughout my cooking. Sometimes it's necessary to go out and get certain ingredients to really make something work, but the best part of cooking is, you can experiment. Don't ever be afraid to do that. Some of the best recipes and flavor combinations are created this way. So head to your pantry and refrigerator, and let's grab some items!

What you will need:
- 13x9 or 11x7 baking dish, greased
- about 2 cups Butternut squash, chopped
- 2 cup part-skim, low fat, ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup of spinach, drained
- 1 Tbsp of lemon zest
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar
- 20 jumbo pasta shells
- Olive oil
- Parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper

For the sauce:
- 1 stick of butter (don't panic!) :-)
- 1 tsp dried sage
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. I like to chop my Butternut squash up a little smaller before I bake it. If you make the pieces smaller, and really bite size, they fit into the pasta shells a lot easier. On a baking sheet, mix your butternut squash with a splash of olive oil, salt and pepper, and the brown sugar. Mix together to be sure each inch of the squash is coated with your ingredients. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

While the squash is cooking you can boil your pasta and assemble the stuffing mixture. The recipe states you can make about a dozen shells with the filling. You are going to have so much filling, and I realized that as I started putting it together, so I threw more shells into the boiling water. 20 shells was the perfect amount, and I had used all my filling. As a side note, don't forget to salt your pasta water! This is the only chance the pasta will have to really absorb any flavors, so throw some salt in the water when it comes to a boil. This is the chance I also take to grate my Parmesan cheese. Yes, I grate my own cheese instead of buying it. I love Kraft cheese in the green can as much as anyone else, but I also like to know what I'm putting in my food along with my fresh ingredients. I just grab a big chunk of Parmesan from the cases near the deli counter and grate away. I grate my cheese right over the bowl, and if you know me, I'm pretty sure I didn't measure the cheese. Okay, I definitely didn't measure the cheese. :-D This is also why there is no measurement up above. Go for about a 1/2 cup and you can use more or less depending on your tastes. (Psst! Go for more!)

So into a bowl goes your ricotta cheese, grated Parmesan cheese, spinach, your egg, cooked Butternut squash, lemon zest, and some salt and pepper to taste. Mix everything together, and you'll start to realize how much the lemon zest really perfumes the entire mixture. It's the perfect accompaniment in this dish. It cuts through the rest of the ingredients which sound too heavy, and it gives it a fresh, clean taste. MMMMmmmmm...

After your mixture is prepared, check on your pasta to be sure it is al dente. No one likes mushy pasta, and in actuality, cooking your pasta to al dente is the way macaroni is supposed to be cooked. I took my shells out one by one and placed them on a platter to cool. It's best if you allow the shells to cool so they'll be easier to handle. Once cooled, take a jumbo shell and fill it with your Butternut squash - ricotta stuffing. This can get a little messy, and all of your shells will not stand upright. Don't get discouraged. Overstuffed, imperfect shells are what really make this dish rustic and extra special. Kind of like art; every plate will be different. Keep filling your shells and loading them into a greased baking dish. When I'm done, I like to grate a little more cheese over the top. It makes for the perfect baked dish!

Pop your tray in the oven for about 20-25 minutes. I went closer to the 25 minute side because I love seeing the shells get slightly brown on the edges and for it to really look like a baked pasta dish. The end result is mouth watering, I promise you.

You just have one more step left. The sage, lemon, and butter sauce. Take a small saucepan and melt the entire stick of butter over medium-low heat. I know this seems like a lot of butter, but remember how many shells you have, and you're only going to drizzle the mixture over your plate. We're not dousing shells in butter. Keep that in mind. Once the butter is melted, add the dried sage. Stir frequently for about 2 minutes to make sure the sage blends into the butter. The last step is to add the lemon juice. Depending on how much you like lemon, you could add less if lemon isn't your thing. Stir to combine and get ready to serve.

This dish is so amazing, so I really hope you do try it. Like I said, experimenting with food, and putting more or less of the flavors and ingredients you like, is what cooking is all about. Cheers to a wonderful weekday, or weeknight, meal that's sure to satisfy and comfort. :-)


  1. this sounds delicious!! any suggestions for a butternut squash substitute? i've been using it a ton lately and think i might turn into one ;)

  2. Leah, you can definitely use sweet potato if you have it. It's just as delicious as the butternut squash. You can add a little cinnamon and spices to it as you roast it. Yum!!