With many people adopting meatless recipes to serve for Meatless Monday’s, I decided to update an old-time, cold weather comfort food dish: stuffed pasta shells. I’ve updated my old recipe with kale. One of the healthiest vegetables you can eat, kale is a power-packed member of the cabbage family. It’s considered a “superfood” – whole foods that have a naturally high concentration of nutrients, which makes this recipe update truly super.
Dark Leafy Greens
Although I love vegetables, I did not grow up eating dark leafy greens beyond spinach or red lettuce for salad. And I didn’t cook with them much, until I discovered their power-packed nutritional profile. No longer foreign greens, I am finding ways to incorporate kale into my diet.
Reading about kale’s nutritional properties is amazing. It’s shown to lower cholesterol, fight cancer, be full of vitamins and minerals, and support the bodies natural detoxification system. It has some of the highest antioxidant levels of any vegetable. Wow. You can find it the market year round, and its peak is now, from mid-winter through early spring.
I’ve been buying Lacinato or Tuscan kale (also known as Dinosaur kale), which is a little milder than curly kale. This variety of kale has dark evergreen colored leaves that look embossed or heavily textured. Look for bunches with smaller leaves as they will be more more tender than larger leaves. And be sure to buy organic if possible. Kale is on the EWG’s “dirty dozen” list of worst produce for pesticides.
To prepare kale, cut out the center tough ribs, then cook the leaves briefly in boiling salted water (called blanching), about three minutes. Dunk the leaves into a bowl of ice water to set the color and stop the cooking process.
Drain the kale leaves and dry well. If you have one, a salad spinner will get most of the water out, then squeeze dry in paper towels, removing excess moisture. Next, chop the kale and mix into a bowl with sauteed onions, garlic, cheeses and herbs. Fill cooked jumbo pasta shells with the filling. Place in a casserole dish, top with sauce, then bake.
For sauce, you can use your favorite jarred sauce, or homemade. Here is my recipe for an oven roasted tomato marinara. Roast it while you are working on the other steps or make it ahead and refrigerate for a few days.
Ingredient Notes and Other Ideas
Sometimes I’ll toss hot blanched kale with freshly cooked whole wheat pasta and toss with breadcrumbs, lemon zest and Parmesan for a quick and healthy dinner, another option with kale for Meatless Monday’s. Any way you can add it to your diet, kale is a terrific, healthy addition.
One last ingredient note: I prefer to cook with whole wheat pasta. Unfortunately, jumbo shells do not come in whole wheat as they are still considered a specialty noodle. When I asked my favorite pasta manufacturer (Delallo) about the possibility, they replied they had no plans to make shells in whole wheat as of yet. Maybe one day. In the mean time, the Delallo regular jumbo shells are great.
An option is to use whole wheat lasagna noodles trimmed to 6″-6 1/2″, place about 1/4 cup of the filling on one end and roll. Place in the casserole laying flat, top with sauce and bake. I call these lasagna ruffles.
Kale and Ricotta Stuffed Shells
Servings: About 4 (yield 16 stuffed shells)
- 16 jumbo pasta shells (or use manicotti shells)
- 9 ounce bunch (about 250 grams) organic kale, center ribs trimmed out
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup finely chopped onion (about 5 ounces or 150 grams)
- 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 15 ounces (425 grams) part skim Ricotta cheese (I like Polly O if you can get it)
- 3/4 cup (60 grams) freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese, plus extra for the top (divided use)
- 1 large egg
- ¼ cup chopped fresh flat leaf (Italian) parsley (part fresh oregano is nice too)
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian blend herbs (or use dried basil)
- ¾ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional but good)
- 25-30 ounces of homemade tomato sauce or your favorite jarred brand
Cook the pasta shells and the kale
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Cook the pasta shells according to package directions. Remove the cooked shells to a clean kitchen towel. Bring water back to a boil and add the kale leaves. Cook (blanch) for three minutes. Remove the leaves to a bowl of ice water. When the kale is cold, drain, squeeze dry in paper towels. A salad spinner can help get rid of excess moisture to start, then squeeze dry in paper towels. Chop the kale into small pieces and set aside.
Make the filling
- In a medium skillet or saute pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and cook (saute) until its soft and transparent. Add the garlic and cook another 60 seconds. Add the chopped kale. Place in a medium bowl and mix in ricotta and 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, egg and herbs and seasonings until smooth.
Fill shells and bake
- Place about a 1 cup of the tomato sauce in a 9×13 casserole dish. Place about two tablespoons of filling in each shell. For reference, see the photo in the post. You want the shells to be full but not bursting. Place filled shells on top of the sauce. Top the shells with the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle with the last quarter cup of the Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.
Other helpful links and information:
Worlds Healthiest Foods site, information on kale’s incredible nutritional properties
The Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in produce
Roasted Tomato Marinara (done in the oven so its hand free)
Five Minute Tomato Sauce, from 101 Cookbooks
Wusthof Grand Prix II 7″ Santoku knife, one of my favorite, must-have knives.
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