The world has been in love with pasta for countless generations. There are more than 300 Italian types alone and that, of course, does not include the hundreds of types of pasta our Asian friends devour.
There is something about the toothsome, hearty nature of a well-cooked pasta; it is filling, delicious and perhaps the ultimate comfort food.
It holds hands with dozens of sauces, rejoices with almost any cheese and is even good with just a tab of good butter and a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
But there is a whole other world of pasta many home cooks may be afraid to attempt; pasta with a simple filling. It's not as difficult as you think. There are challenging recipes to be sure; Mario Batali's pasta pyramids stuffed with lamb's tongue or his handmade tortellini filled with chicken, pancetta and mortadella come to mind, but there are a handful of dried pasta shapes that are quite easy to stuff; perhaps the best are conchiglie (shells) and manicotti.
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The stuffing can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. Most fillings include ricotta as a binder. Just add to some fresh herbs and you have a wonderful, simple filling. To this base you can add just about anything: meats, seafood, herbs and any vegetables you prefer. Other pasta fillings include, sweet potato, pumpkin, roasted bell peppers, mushrooms, greens and dozens of other ingredients.
The sauces that can be served with stuffed pasta cover the same gamut. One of the best is butter and sage. It doesn't get much simpler than that, does it? The two basic red sauces also work extremely well; a fresh quickly cooked tomato sauce with a few herbs or a long-cooked ragu. White sauces are also delicious; try a simple béchamel (a roux whisked with milk) or add cheese to it and transform it into a Mornay sauce.
One last consideration is whether to serve your stuffed pasta in casserole (gratin) or with just a sauce.
Stuffed pasta covered with breadcrumbs and cheese and baked in the oven has got to be a worldwide favorite, but it does add a certain amount of complication to the process. That decision, dear cook, we will leave to your discretion.
BASIC RED SAUCE
One 28-ounce can of best-quality whole tomatoes
One 28-ounce can best-quality tomato sauce
1 cup red wine
1 chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
4-6 toes of chopped garlic
1 bay leaf
Sauté the onions, bell pepper and celery in a little olive oil for at least 10 minutes. Season aggressively, then add the garlic and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Add the wine and reduce by ½. Add the tomatoes and tomato sauce and bring up to a simmer. Taste and re-season as necessary. If you have the rind of a Parmigiano-Reggiano add it to the sauce. Simmer for 1 hour. This simple sauce is great over any pasta, but try dunking toasted garlic bread in it and eating right off the stove.
BASIC STUFFED SHELLS
One 12-ounce package pasta shells
One 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
1 bag fresh spinach leaves
2-3 toes finely diced garlic
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2-cup grated of Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 cups basic red sauce (see recipe above or use your favorite store brand)
Olive oil as needed
Black pepper, red pepper flakes, Italian seasoning
Cook the shells according to package directions, but be sure to use a slow boil and stir carefully as broken shells will have to be discarded. Sauté the garlic in a little olive oil until fragrant, add the spinach and wilt. Combine the spinach, ricotta, egg and Parmigiano-Reggiano in a mixing bowl, season liberally. Stuff the shells with the mixture. Place several spoonfuls of basic tomato sauce in the bottom of individual ramekins, add 2-3 stuffed shells, top with more sauce and the mozzarella and bake at 350 degrees until it bubbles and browns, about 30 minutes. Serve with a hearty Italian Chianti.
PUMPKIN STUFFED SHELLS
2 cups cubed pumpkin
2-3 diced garlic toes
1/2 cup grated of Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 stick butter
6 fresh sage leaves
1 pinch red pepper flakes
Black pepper as needed
Olive oil as needed
Cook the shells according to package directions. Sauté the garlic in a little olive oil, add the pumpkin and cook until tender. Combine the pumpkin, Parmigiano-Reggiano, egg and panko in a mixing bowl and blend carefully with a fork until smooth (use a food processor if you like but do not over process). Season as you go. Stuff the shells with the mixture then melt the butter and add the sage leaves, cook over low heat until fragrant. Add the stuffed shells to the sauté pan with the butter sage sauce, spoon some of the butter over the shells and bake at 325 until hot. Serve immediately. Try this dish with a good pinot noir.
GOAT CHEESE STUFFED PASTA
1 package shells or manicotti
1 cup goat cheese
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
1 pinch fresh chopped thyme
1/2-cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2-3 cups basic red sauce
Cook the pasta according to directions. Combine the goat cheese, eggs and herbs and mix well. Stuff the pasta shells with the mixture, place in ramekins, top with the sauce and bake at 325 degrees until piping hot. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve with a good Sauvignon Blanc.sunherald.com.