Stuffed Shells (with tofu and veggies)

Like any good Italian-American family, mine loves pasta.  It’s so satisfying and versatile….perfect to match with whatever items I have hanging around in the fridge.  I also love dishes that I can make ahead of time and store in the freezer to pull out on a busy evening when there’s no time to put dinner together from scratch.  The perfect marriage of these is my recipe for Stuffed Shells.

By using tofu to replace some of the cheese in this recipe, I am able to lower the fat content and offer an additional source of nutrients, which makes this a very nice option for those of us who are, or love, a vegetarian.  But first, a disclaimer:  tofu quality varies greatly, and a fair amount of controversy surrounds the consumption of this coagulated soy product and, in fact, soy products altogether.  First, soy is a highly genetically-modified crop in the U.S., so it’s very important when buying tofu to buy Organic.  Next, soy and tofu have been touted for many benefits, but there are just as many warnings that it may actually have an unhealthy effect on the body.  If you decide that you want to consume soy in moderation, then follow the recipe below as stated.  If you would prefer a soy-free version, then replace the soy with more ricotta or cottage cheese.

Now, a little advice on buying tofu — be sure to get the “fresh” variety and eat it fresh, as well.  Tofu is often packaged with what seems to be a pretty long shelf life (at times I’ve seen months, not weeks, before the product officially expires), but you should try to eat it as soon after you buy it as possible.  For this recipe, I recommend buying tofu that is labeled as “firm”.  This means that some of the moisture has already been removed from the cube of tofu, although you will still need to squeeze out additional moisture.  Since the flavor of the tofu itself if pretty bland, feel free to go a little crazy with the herbs and veggies, and slightly more salt may be needed.

By the way, this dish has been served to several Italian food “experts” in my family who didn’t know ahead of time that tofu was nearly 50% of the filling.  So far, I’ve had no one who has felt that anything was awry in this recipe.  In fact, everyone usually loves this dish!

Ingredients:

1 16-ounce package of jumbo pasta shells

1 15-ounce package of firm tofu

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano

1 egg

salt and pepper

Season to your liking with dried basil, parsley, and/or oregano.  I recommend about 1 teaspoon of each.

Prepared with about 3 cups of your choice of tomato sauce and an additional cup of mozzarella cheese.

Optional vegetables to add:

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped

1-2 cloves of garlic, minced

1/2 red pepper (fresh or roasted), finely chopped

6 ounces of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and thoroughly drained

Directions:

Boil the pasta shells in salted water until they are slightly under-cooked.  Gently remove them from the water and place them on a large baking sheet that has been very lightly oiled.  Carefully separate the shells that have nested together and allow them to cool.  Meanwhile, remove the tofu from its container, drain it, and compress it gently to remove any excess liquid.  Crumble the tofu into a large bowl and add the ricotta, parmigiano reggiano, and one cup of the mozzarella.  Stir to combine.  Add the herbs and vegetables of your choosing and salt and pepper to taste.  Note:  I usually like to add a vegetable combination of onion, garlic, and either red pepper or spinach, depending on what I have in my house at the time.  Chopped spinach may be added directly to the cheese mixture without any pre-cooking.  You have a couple options for the other veggies.  You can simply chop them, or chop and pre-sauté them, but my preferred method is to pulse them together for a few seconds in the food processor so that they blend smoothly into the cheese mixture without any pre-cooking.  Lightly beat the egg and stir it into the ingredients until everything is well-combined.

Using a tablespoon (the eating kind, not the measuring kind), gently fill each shell with the mixture and return the filled pasta to the baking sheet.

If preparing for that day’s meal:

Select a baking dish that will snugly hold the amount of shells you intend to cook.  Coat the bottom with a few spoonfuls of sauce.  Carefully place the shells in a single layer in the dish, open side up.  Spoon the sauce over the shells, making sure to coat, but not drown, each one.  Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella over the top.  Bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese on top is melted and starting to brown.  Chopped fresh basil or parsley may be sprinkled on top before serving.

If freezing for a later use:

Place the baking sheet of filled shells in the freezer, uncovered.  Allow to freeze for at least two hours, then the shells may be stored in an airtight container.  When you are ready to use them, pull out just as many as you need and follow the cooking instructions above.  No thawing is necessary, but the cooking time may need to be adjusted.

Buon appetito!

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