Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spicy Stuffed Shells

Hello hello, old friends!

I apologize for the rather long hiatus. In my defense, during the break I was moving from Erie to DC, so that was kind of life consuming.  But I'm back and prepared to start cooking up a storm.

One of my favorite things about fall (besides the leaves and the air and the sunlight and the smell and the cider and the treats and the everything), is the opportunity to break out your favorite comfort food recipes.  Dishes that are warm and hearty and make your house smell amaaaaaaazing as they bubble away in the oven.

This stuffed shell recipe is one of my all-time favorite recipes.  The shells are stuffed with turkey and artichokes and cheese and then smothered in a spicy marinara sauce that is amped up with extra pancetta and garlic.  And of course the whole thing is topped with mozzarella cheese before it's baked.  My mouth is actually watering thinking about it, and I just had this last week. It is that good.

Let's talk about pancetta for a minute. If you're not familiar with pancetta, it's basically bacon except without the smokeyness.  You can sometimes find it prepackaged or even pre-diced at the store. But the cheapest way to get it is just at your deli counter (it may be in a sub-section labeled charcuterie which is prepared meats). When you place your order, ask them to thickly slice the pancetta-- about 1/2 an inch-- which will make it easier for you to dice it into nice evenly sized pieces.

This meal takes a little bit longer to make, but it is so worth the time you will put into it.  After making it a couple of times, you'll get faster.  Also, it freezes beautifully so you can make it as a do ahead when you have some free time, freeze the whole thing, and then whip it out on a night when you don't feel like cooking. 

After having these homemade stuffed shells, you will never want to order them at a restaurant ever again.

Spicy Stuffed Shells
For the sauce:

2 T extra virgin olive oil
6 oz thick sliced pancetta, diced
2 t dried crushed red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 cups marinara sauce
For the shells:
1 box jumbo shells
3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground turkey
1 can artichoke hearts chopped
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese (regular or low fat)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  Start by getting out a large pot for boiling pasta, a medium sauce pan, and a large saute pan.  Fill the large pot with water and set it over high heat to come to a boil.  Then, get out your ingredients for your sauce.  Add a couple swirls of EVOO to the sauce pan and add your diced pancetta. 
Don't worry about adding a lot of oil; as the pancetta cooks, its natural fat will render out and the meaty bits will start to fry in its own drippings.  While that happens (about 3 minutes), mince your garlic and then add it to the pot.  Cook for another 2-3 minutes. You want it to get golden and look something like this:
Next add the marinara and crushed red pepper.  If you don't like things very spicy, cut back on the pepper.  Use a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan and then cover the pot with a lid.  Bring it to a simmer over medium heat, then turn the heat off and let it sit.

While your sauce is coming to a simmer, start on the filling part of the shells.  In your large saute pan, add a few good glugs of EVOO.  You're going to be cooking the turkey in this pan, and ground turkey is low in fat, so it needs extra fat added in the form of oil to help it brown beautifully. First, add your diced onion and garlic, and cook til its translucent, about 3 minutes. 
 Then add your turkey and break it up into bits.  Season with salt and pepper, and let cook for about 10 minutes, continuing to break up and stir the turkey, til things have started to become brown and fragrant. It's a little tricky to get turkey to brown without it drying out, but you are shooting for something like this:

By now your sauce has started to boil, so definitely turn that bad boy off. Your water has probably been boiling too, right? So while the turkey cooks, salt your pasta water and cook the shells for 4-5 minutes, just til they are pliable but still raw in the middle.  Set a timer or you will forget them.  When the shells are done, drain them and drizzle a little EVOO on top so they are not a sticky lump when you come back to them.  

Back to the filling! You can get artichoke hearts whole or quartered at the store-- buy whatever is cheapest, and chop accordingly.  When the turkey is done, add the artichokes.  Take advantage of the wetness of the artichokes to deglaze the pan.  Deglazing is just a fancy word for adding liquid to a hot pan so anything that is stuck to it gets released.  The brown bits that get cooked onto the bottom of your pans is where the real flavor is, so you want to get that into your final product. If the artichokes don't do the trick, add a splash of chicken stock or water. Just enough to get things loosened.  Don't worry-- the excess liquid will cook off.  

Turn the heat off on your turkey mixture and let it sit on the sidelines to cool off.  The last thing to assemble is the cheese mixture.  Remember how we talked about how to slice basil? Do that now so your basil doesn't get angry and bruised.  

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, salt and pepper, and basil til smooth and creamy.
Then add in your cooled turkey mixture.

You're in the home stretch! Get out a 9x13 baking dish as well as a 1 quart baking dish.  In the bottom of the 9x13 baking dish, pour a ladle or two of sauce and spread it out. 
Then set up your assembly line. 

In each shell, put about 2 tablespoons of filling and line them up in your baking dish.  
You might have some filling and shells leftover, and you definitely don't want any to go to waste.  If you have extras: gauge the size of dish you could fill (I usually have enough to fill a 1 quart or 6x6 dish) and finish off your shells.  
Divide the rest of your spicy marinara sauce accordingly and pour it on top of the shells.  Top with the mozzarella cheese. 
Bake in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes, or until browned and bubbling.  If you are cooking from frozen, bake for at least an hour.

If you made a second smaller dish, you could freeze that guy and bake the big one to feed a crowd.  Or if you were making this dish in advance, cook the small one as a preview of the main event.  It will be a satisfying reward at the end of making all that delicious food.

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