Italian food–with a heavy dose of Appalachian influence–has always been a big part of my life. My mom often makes Italian style “noodles” (the generic term for at least 10 totally different pasta dishes), even though her heritage is pretty solidly Eastern European. Her side of the family comes from a little town in West Virginia that’s dotted with sprawling hillside gardens, where Italian (pronounced Eye-tal-yen) food is rampant, right along with hot peppers and the best damned heirloom tomatoes you will ever sink your teeth into. Lasagna, Rigatoni, Ravioli, and fragrant homemade “sauce” reign supreme in the kitchens of practically every one of my family members right alongside traditional Polish foods like pierogi and pączki.
Stuffed shells, however, didn’t make appearances on our dinner table, so they were a rare and wonderful treat usually only bestowed onto my tiny tastebuds if we went out to eat. And so, every time we dined at an Italian restaurant, I would find myself either ordering the stuffed shells or manicotti, depending on the menu offerings. It became a special meal for me as a child–a dish much too fancy/fussy to be prepared at home.
It wasn’t until I got onto a serious manicotti making kick during my Freshman year of college that I finally attempted stuffed shells on my own. They were so much easier than I imagined: boil, stuff, sauce, bake. That’s it! Many of the dishes my mom taught me how to cook over the years were far more time consuming and required way more skill to pull off. Making stuffed noodle dishes became one of my favorite ways to unwind after a stressful week of assignments/general college activities. That was about 10 years ago, and ever since then I have stuck to pretty much the same recipe. I enjoy making them because they look so darn elegant when plated with care, but they are just about as easy to make as spaghetti–especially if you already have your favorite sauce jarred up and ready to rock.
Yield: 8 shells
Sauce (feel free to use your favorite sauce here):
For the Sauce:
Preheat your oven to 400 ºF. Remove most of the papery outside of the garlic bulb and cut off tip (opposite root) to expose the tops of the garlic cloves. Place into a very loose foil pouch and drizzle lightly with about 1 teaspoon olive oil. Place into oven on a metal baking tray next to the tomatoes and the red pepper.
Roast the tomatoes, garlic bulb, and pepper in a preheated oven for 45 minutes to 60 minutes, or until skins on tomatoes and pepper are very wrinkly and darkened, and the garlic is caramelized and fragrant. Remove from the oven, let cool and then remove skins from the tomatoes, pepper and the roasted garlic cloves from the bulb.
In a food processor, blend the roasted tomatoes, pepper, and garlic along with the tomato paste, sea salt, 2 tablespoons olive oil, marjoram and fennel until smooth.
For the Shells:
Cook the pasta according to package directions and preheat oven to 350 °F. Once pasta is finished cooking, rinse gently with cold water and drizzle on a bit of olive oil.
In medium sized frying pan, saute the leeks with the olive oil and lightly salt. Cook about 7 minutes, stirring often, until leeks soften up and turn slightly golden.
In large bowl combine all ingredients for ricotta with wooden spoon. You don’t want to over mix it, but just evenly combine the tofu with the rest of the ingredients. Mix the sauteed leeks with the Ricotta filling and spoon into grand shells. Cover bottom of 8 inch baking dish with sauce and then carefully place shells open end up so that they fit snugly into the pan. Top with pulsed pistachios and bake for about 30 minutes, or until warmed through. Serve immediately.