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Vegetarian Stuffed Shells- Christmas Eve

December 24, 2010

I think I have mentioned before that the tradition in our family is to eat an Italian meal on Christmas Eve. A nod to my mother’s Southern Italian family, we would enjoy a simple Italian pasta with meatballs and sausage, which had been simmering in tomato sauce all day. After dinner we would curl up with my dad and read the Night Before Christmas and leave out milk in a Santa mug. When my brother married JR, who has Sicilian family, we learned about the night of fishes. Her family has course, after course, after course of fish and the spend their Christmas Eve into the wee hours of the morning feasting. It takes two kitchens and alot of love to make their dinner. I found it really neat that her family honored their Italian heritage in the same night, but in their own way. AAM traditionally celebrated Christmas Eve by going to the Shrine in downtown DC. When we started dating, his family invited me to join them, it was an early gesture to a long time tradition. After we were married, his parents started eating over at our place every Christmas Eve, which meant coming up with a meal that could be easy to make after Mass. Trying to blend two traditions each year, I cooked  many different Italian meals to share with them.

Now that we are raising Serafina, it is even more important that we come up with our own version of our traditions. This year we found a fresh copy of The Night Before Christmas to read, the Santa mug, Walker’s shortbread as a nod to AAM’s family, a visit to the shrine and an Italian dinner. For our new traditions, we are starting with giving her only one gift, and I really hope we can keep this up (insert your own new-parent-naive-goal comment here). I like the idea of moving the focus away from receiving. Additionally, I eventually want to teach Serafina how to sew so she can join in on my own tradition. A couple of years back, I started making our gifts for our parents. It started as a desire to give something thrifty and loving, but it has turned into something I look forward to doing once Winter Break begins. For me, sewing is as cathartic as cooking. A simple act that produces a concrete and beautiful result. Also, sitting at home, near the tree, making a throw quilt (like last year) or cocktail napkins (like this year) feels more festive to me than running through the streets purchasing/consuming just to find them a gift that they probably don’t need or use. I think it is cliche to say that Christmas has devolved into a season of cynical consumerism. It is more important to look for ways out of the obvious state of Christmas; it is finding ways out of the mass commercialism back into your own family traditions that help you find the reason for the holiday. So, try and create traditions with the people who surround you. So I wish everyone a Happy Holiday filled with traditions, and if you want to add these stuffed shells to yours–please do!

A note on the recipe: I doubled it for tonight’s guests and it made about two trays of shells. I encourage you to boil more shells then you think you will need because they can break. I baked the shells, and I am going to put it in the fridge when we leave for church. When we return, I am going to pop them in the oven to reheat, while I make a side salad (romaine, chopped tomatoes, dried blueberries, pumpkin seeds, crumbled feta, with balsamic vinagerette).

Happy Holidays!

Vegetarian Stuffed Shells

  • 1 box of large shells (Barilla)
  • 2 cans of whole peeled tomatoes (Progresso or Muir Glen)
  • 1 can of tomato paste (Muir Glen)
  • 8 cups of fresh spinach
  • 5 cloves of garlic, loosely chopped
  • 3 tb olive oil
  • 4 cups of ricotta cheese (your choice about the level of fat, I tend to mix half a container of full and a half of skim)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup of Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 4 cups of mozzarella shredded
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp basil
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp Black pepper

1. First you will make the tomato sauce. Heat the olive oil over medium heat and throw in the garlic cloves. Let simmer, but before it burns take all the garlic out (yes, remove it, otherwise you have a garlicky sauce worthy of the Olive Garden). Next, add in the whole peeled tomatoes and tomato paste. Squish the tomatoes with your hands or a wooden cooking spoon. Let your  sauce simmer for several hours, the more the better. Stir occasionally. If your pan burns, no biggie it adds more flavor 😉

2. Then, prepare your shell ingredients. First boil water, and throw your shells in to the pot. Be sure you only cook them al dente. So for about ______ minutes. Additionally, in a separate pot or in the microwave, steam your spinach. Be sure to drain it if it gets too soggy. While the spinach and pasta cook, in a large bowl mix the ricotta, egg, Pecorino Romano, basil, oregano, salt, and pepper. When the spinach finishes, chop it up and mix it in with the cheese mixture.

3. Next, prepare your shells for the oven. Drain the pasta and place them on a greased pan. Fill each shell with a spoonful of the cheese and spinach mixture. Drizzle the tomato sauce over each shell, it is OK to be generous here. Finally, take the mozzarella and sprinkle over the dish. Top with a little more Pecorino and black pepper if you so desire. Bake in the oven at 350 for 40 minutes. Do not bake at 400 because it will burn the shells.

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