Gulf Coast Cooking

Stuffed pasta hits the spot on a cool day

This is the glorious time of the year when cool days bring on serious appetites.

What is it about a brisk morning that makes us hunger for something substantial? Why does the north wind, even the Deep South, urge us to make a fire in the fireplace and gather there with family?

It is all a mystery, but the good things that satisfy that hearty appetite abound.

Soups and stews are the norm for this time of year, but there is another category of comforting and filling food that is inexpensive and delicious. Stuffed or filled pasta can be just the right answer in almost any circumstance, whether it be that your time is short, your purse strings drawn tight, or you have a finicky family.

Italians adore stuffed pasta and there are more than a dozen types of pasta that suit that purpose. Considering that most of us will want to buy a dried pasta from the grocery store, there are two basic types that are readily available -- manicotti and conchiglioni, what we refer to as shells. Cannelloni and ravioli, while popular, are often made with fresh pasta.

Dried pasta was traditionally made in Southern Italy and fresh-made in the north, but today 80 percent of pasta consumed in Italy is of the dried variety. In truth, these two types of pasta are so different in texture and taste that it just doesn't do to compare them side by side.

All of these recipes can be made family style in a large ovenproof pan, or if you want something just a bit more elegant, serve in individual ramekins. Of course, you should also serve a loaf of crusty bread to sop up the sauce. Pick a good Italian red wine to go with the recipes that include a red sauce, and try a nice gruner veltliner for the

béchamel sauce recipe.

SPINACH STUFFED SHELLS

1 box shell pasta

1- 1/2 cups spinach

1/2 cup chopped ham

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 egg

Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2- 1/2 cups milk

1 pinch nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the pasta according to package directions, but remove 1 minute before done, drain and reserve. Cook the spinach in a little salt water until it is tender, remove and place in a colander to drain. When it is cool chop it to remove any large leafs. Sauté the ham in a little oil until it takes on color. Combine the spinach, ham, ricotta, egg and 2/3 cup grated Parmesan, or more if you like and mix well. Stuff each shell with the mixture and place in a greased oven-proof pan. To make the sauce, melt the butter in a saute pan, whisk in the flour and then whisk in the milk. Make sure there are no lumps. Season with salt and pepper and simmer slowly for 15 minutes. Pour the sauce over the pasta, top with more Parmesan and bake for 20 minutes.

PORK-FILLED PASTA SHELLS

1 large can whole tomatoes

1 glass red wine

2 chopped onions

2 small chopped bell peppers

1 small chopped jalapeno pepper

2-3 cloves chopped garlic

Red pepper flakes

1- 1/2 cup ground pork

2/3 cup panko breadcrumbs

1 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook the pasta according to package recipe. Make the sauce first, as it takes the longest to cook. Sauté 1/2 the onion, the jalapeno and 1/2 the bell pepper in a little oil for 10 minutes. Season with red pepper flakes. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes and red wine and simmer for 1 hour. Sauté the remaining onion and bell pepper in a little oil for 10 minutes, season with more red pepper flakes, then add the pork and cook until the pork is cooked through. Add the bread crumbs and mix well. Stuff the pasta with this mixture, top with the sauce, and then the cheese, bake for 20 minutes or until bubble and brown.

RICOTTA AND PEA STUFFED PASTA

1 package pasta shells, manicotti

1 can whole tomatoes

1 chopped red onion

1 chopped red bell pepper

3-4 chopped cloves of garlic

1 bunch basil

Red pepper flakes

2 cups ricotta cheese

1 cup cooked peas

1/2 cup chopped ham (optional)

1 cup cubed mozzarella

1 cups grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cook the pasta according to package directions, but just a bit underdone. Drain and set aside. Remember baking will finish the cooking process. Sauté the onion and bell pepper for 5 minutes, add the garlic and cook 2 minutes more. Add the tomatoes and season with red pepper flakes. Simmer 15 minutes, add half the basil and cook only 5 minutes more. Remove the sauce and set aside. Combine the ricotta, peas, remaining basil, optional ham and half the Parmesan. Using a small spoon stuff the pasta. Place in a greased oven proof pan, top with the sauce, and then add remaining cheese. Bake for 20-25 minutes.

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