WEEKNIGHT DISHES

Stuffed shells are doable on a weeknight if you take a shortcut and jarred tomato sauce rather than your own. Or, you can make this meal on the weekend and freeze some for an easy weeknight dinner. 

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All-in-one meals are a popular way to get dinner in the oven quickly. The now ubiquitous sheet-pan suppers provide myriad possibilities for different flavor combinations. However, some all-in-one meals, like lasagna or a shepherd’s pie, take a lot more work.

If you can find some time for a bit of a project, this recipe for stuffed shells can give you one dinner now and you can put enough away for another dinner some other time! In addition, I’ve combined a protein, vegetable and some cheese for a filling that makes a full meal (although, it would be great with a green salad on the side).

This idea came about when I was frustrated with my disorganized freezer and, while reorganizing it, was reminded of the pumpkin purée I had made some months back. I decided to try using it with some cheese and sausage for stuffed shells, and it was quite a success! Now, I am fully aware most people do not have frozen pumpkin purée at the ready, and after the holidays you can’t usually find fresh pumpkin in the stores. Butternut squash purée would certainly work as a substitute, but even easier is a can of pumpkin purée from the supermarket. (Just be sure to buy plain pumpkin and not pie filling.)

Other variations include vegan sausage for a vegetarian version, or even the addition or substitution of other vegetables. I might try adding some chopped mushrooms next time when I’m cooking the sausage. Just be sure whatever vegetables you use are not too wet.

A jarred sauce will be fine here, or if you want to make your own, I’ve blogged about a basic tomato sauce at www.culinursa.com that I’ve made more times than I can count.

For me, the best thing about this is that after I stuffed the shells, we had a great dinner that night, and now I have the rest in the freezer for when it’s been a busy day and I have no time to prepare dinner!

SAUSAGE AND PUMPKIN STUFFED SHELLS

Makes about 32 shells

INGREDIENTS:

2 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 pound loose sweet sausage, approximately 3 large sausages

1/2 teaspoon salt, divided

1 1/2 cup pumpkin or butternut squash purée, or one 15-ounce can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)

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1 cup ricotta

3/4 cup grated Parmesan, divided

1/8 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

12 ounces (1 box) jumbo shells

2 1/2-3 cups tomato sauce

2 cups shredded mozzarella

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 350 F, if baking immediately. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until shimmering and fragrant. Add the sausage with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and sauté, breaking up the pieces, until the meat is fully cooked. Let cool, mix with pumpkin purée, ricotta, 1/4 cup Parmesan, remaining salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Boil jumbo shells according to package directions for a recipe to be baked. They should be very much under-done. Gently remove the shells from the water using a spider or a strainer and spread out on a half sheet pan to cool, separating any that became nested together. If you have to drain them in a colander, try to be gentle so they don’t crack.

If baking the stuffed shells immediately, spread about 1/2 cup tomato sauce on bottom of a baking dish just large enough to hold the shells in a single layer. Use a small spoon or soup spoon to fill each jumbo shell with sausage mixture and arrange in the baking dish. (You probably will not use every shell, which is fine, because some will have cracked. Just use the best, most intact ones.) Pour remaining sauce over the shells, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil, spread mozzarella over the shells, and bake for 10 minutes more. Allow to cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving. If you decide not to bake all the shells at once, adjust the amounts of sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella as necessary.

To freeze some or all, place in a single layer, not touching one another, on a wax or parchment paper-lined half sheet pan. Place the half sheet pan as level as possible into the freezer. Once they are fully frozen, you can place them into a zippered freezer bag for easier storage. To bake, preheat oven to 350 F, and arrange the frozen shells over a thin layer of tomato sauce in the baking dish as described above to cook directly from frozen. Bake covered with foil for 40 minutes, and check to make sure there’s still enough sauce when you remove the foil. If not, add a bit more sauce. Spread the mozzarella over the shells, cook for 10 additional minutes and allow to cool 5-10 minutes before serving.

Elizabeth Baer is a teacher who loves to spend time in the kitchen, and also posts recipes and musings on her food blog, www.culinursa.com/blog