Stuffed shells are one of those classic baked pasta dishes that many people pass on making- simply because they can be very labor intensive. They contain practically the exact same ingredients you would use in a simple baked ziti- just organized differently. The thought of cramming individual portions of cheesy filling into each one of those shells is the heavy lifting part- however, there are ways to speed things along.
Every pasta dish starts and ends with a sauce. My shells are going to be accompanied by a meat, so I didn't see a need to go crazy incorporating meats into my sauce- so I started with a basic marinara sauce- onion, garlic, tomato, and basil, and a long simmer for about two hours.
Yes, I know, this should be called "gravy" not sauce- but, if you've been paying attention, you'd know that it's "gravy" if it's cooked with meat, and it's ok to call a marinara "sauce".
While your marinara simmers, you can use the time to prepare your filling and cook your pasta. You'll need two boxes of jumbo sized shells, cooked in salted water. Since we'll be baking them later, make sure they are very firm and very al dente- they will cook mor elater on. When they come out of the water, give them enough time to cool down- you'll need to handle them so there's no point in burning yourself. Since they may be sitting around for a bit before being filled and sauced, I recommend doing something you probably would never do to a pasta, unless you were making a cold pasta salad- rinse the shells under cool water. This will remove some of the surface starch, and make it a little harder for the sauce to cling to the shells- but you will avoid a potentially large problem- if your shells are un-rinsed, and sit around for even a few minutes in contact with each other, you run a large risk of them sticking together- and an even bigger risk of tearing them when you attempt to seperate them.
For the filling, start with two large (24oz) containers of whole milk ricotta. Add to this a generous handful of shredded mozarella. This will serve as the base of your filling- the ricotta provides the body, and the mozarella, once it melts, will bind it together and thicken it. All this base really needs is a little seasoning- so we'll add a little salt and pepper, then about 2 tablespoons of chopped basil and chopped parsley.
After mixing your filling together, consider how you will stuff this filling into all of those shells. The usual way to do it is to grab a spoon and go for it. This, however, is very time consuming- in fact, I actually swore nevre to make stuffed shells again after preparing a large batch a few years ago. Fortunately, right after swearing off stuffed shells for life, I realized the obvious- just use a piping bag- or at least, the poor-man's version- a plastic storage bag with the corner snipped off.
So, simply load up a healthy amount of your ricotta mixture into your favorite plastic bag, and snip off the end with a pair of scissors- make the opening just large enough to insert into one of the shells. Simply insert the tip of your bag into one of the shells, and give the bag a gentle squeeze.
As you fill your shells, set them in a deep baking tray- but before you start, coat the bottom with a decent layer of your marinara sauce. Just go one at a time, and arrange the shells in rows. You'll probably need to reload your piping bag a few times depending on how many shells you're making.
There is no real rule of thumb for how full to make your shells- full, but not too full is the best I can say- just stop short of having the stuff oozing out and you've probably got it right.
The next part is easy- we need to top off and dress our shells. Spoon a generous amount of your marinara sauce on top of the shells to start, then a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese. The final icing on the cake is to top the tray off with a handful of shredded fresh basil leaves. The marinara will soak into the pasta and continue to cook it through, and the extra cheese will melt over the top.
Cover the tray with aluminum foil, and bake in the oven. The ricotta mixture will become almost liquid, but the shredded mozzarella in it acts almost as a binder to give the filling enough cohesiveness to keep it from flowing out of the shells and just becoming a mess.
So, my shells were meant to be part of a bigger holiday meal, so I served it along-side some honey-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, and a few vegetables. The sting beans were simply blanched for about a minute in boiling water, then sauteed in olive oil with a little minced garlic.
For my glazed carrots, I decided to be a little different. Rather than make the base of my glaze from brown sugar, I used a little leftover dark corn syrup from the pecan pie I made the day before. I warmed about 1/4 cup of the corn syrup in a small pan, and added some paprika and cinnamon to make things interesting. Once the syrup was hot and at it's most liquid, I added in baby carrots that I boiled until fork tender. I tossed the carrots in the syrup, and let it soak in, letting the carrots cook a little longer in the sweet liquid.
The shells were a nice cheesy note on a plate containing a lot of meaty and sweet items. The richness of the cheeses, with their gooey, almost liquid texture, and the bold tang of the marinara combined with the aromatic notes of the basil were just the thing to tie this holiday plate together- or stand up as a meal on it's own the next day as leftovers. Fortunately, I only know how to make a large amount of shells, so there were plenty of leftovers for the next day or two- and as the shells sit in the sauce over night, they become even better.