Kale and Ricotta Stuffed Shells

by Sally on December 5, 2011 · 28 comments

in Pasta, Vegetarian Dishes


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.

Prep and Cook Kale

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

Nutritionally power-packed kale makes a great update to this comfort food recipe with Ricotta and Parmesan cheeses for filling jumbo pasta shells. It’s a great recipe for meatless Mondays. Used homemade roasted tomato sauce or your favorite jar sauce. Three shells will feed an average appetite if you add a salad. Bigger appetites might eat four shells. Leftovers make a good lunch. There are a few steps to this recipe, but it’s worth it. None are difficult. To save time, make your filling ahead and refrigerate, then cook the pasta, stuff the shells and bake. IF you can’t find the jumbo shells, use manicotti shells.

Servings: About 4 (yield 16 stuffed shells)

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

Cook the pasta shells and the kale

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jesica @ pencil kitchen December 5, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Wow… I always have a thing for bigger sized food! This is definitely one of those things!

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2 Anna December 5, 2011 at 11:32 pm

A fresh, nutritious and easy-to-make recipe like this veggie dish is absolutely what I need. I love the crunch of blanched kale…I am wondering if I can use my taco shells instead of the shells. I have a few leftovers from last weekends party. Thanks for sharing.

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3 Sally December 6, 2011 at 8:33 am

Hi Anna, taco shells and pasta shells are two completely different things. Not sure that would work. The filling is pretty soft and would probably squish out, but let us all know! You could roll the filling in the middle of short whole wheat lasagna noodles, lay them flat and bake them. I do that sometimes and make “lasagna ruffles” or lasagna rolls. I don’t use a full, long noodle. The length is a little over 6″.

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4 Simply Tia December 6, 2011 at 2:52 am

These look so delicious. I love the photos. I’ve never had kale but if they’re anything like spinach then I’m definitely going to give this recipe a spin!

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5 Sally December 6, 2011 at 8:28 am

I like the kale even better than spinach in these shells Tia. Please report back if you make them!

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6 Madonna December 6, 2011 at 10:55 am

I love your recipes. They are so clean and make me think I can do that. Love kale and chard much more than spinach. I have avoided ricotta dishes because it can be grainy; I want it to be creamy. I am anxious to check out the Polly-O.

What size is the single serving gratin dish? I have wanted a set ever since I saw Barefoot Contessa use them for smaller servings. Your photo just reinforced I really should have them – as always beautiful photos.

As always thank you for sharing.

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7 Sally December 6, 2011 at 11:08 am

Thanks Madonna. The Polly-O is wonderful. Worth finding. When you open your first container you will immediately see the difference. Lovely and creamy. Those individual gratin dishes are nice to have. I have old ones and newer Le Creuset’s as well. The Le C’s are heavier, more solid, nice. I’ll put a link on the bottom of the post. Good idea.

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8 texas food and travel December 6, 2011 at 2:03 pm

i love this recipe. thanks for sharing sally

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9 Sally December 7, 2011 at 7:26 am

Sally, How beautiful, and how perfect for the season. I bet you could use whole-wheat lasagna noodles, spread them with the filling and roll them. Not quite the same, but another way to use whole wheat pasta if you prefer. I better have something to eat, this recipe is making me hungry :)

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10 Sally December 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Hi Sally, yes, I’ve done that many times. It’s usually how I prepare this for my clients. I made a note at the end of the post. An entire lasagna noodle is too long, so I trim them to about 6″ – 61/2″ in length after cooking, then fill and roll. Works great.

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11 Anna December 7, 2011 at 8:46 am

Thanks Sally! I decided to just put on hold using my leftover taco shells and then just search for shells. Your recipe was splendid! I just hope I can find the whole wheat variety next time so i can try this again…;)

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12 Sally December 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Hi Anna. So glad you liked the recipe! Unfortunately the whole wheat style do not exist. I think they are such a speciality noodle that manufacturers have not made them in whole wheat yet. Maybe one day, as whole wheat becomes mainstream. I will keep looking for them.

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13 Susan-jane December 8, 2011 at 5:33 am

Could this be done as a vegan meal? Could tofu be used in place of the ricotta? And if it was to be gluten-free could you use corn tortillas? Now we are into another dish! Just trying to lower cholesterol…managed to lower by 61 points doing the vegan food plan. Thanks for the help. Your oven carrots of October are supurb! S-j

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14 Sally December 8, 2011 at 9:10 am

Hi SJ. Hmm, making this vegan….You could try a combo of silken tofu and maybe add the tofutti vegan cream cheese instead of the Part skim Ricotta for enough body. I’d say no on the tortillas. Pasta shells should be vegan and not an issue, so I’m not sure why you would want to use tortillas? Glad the carrots worked for you. I love those too, and sometimes I add parsnips. If you try the vegan filling, please report back. Thanks!

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15 Jeff December 10, 2011 at 11:58 pm

I love the combination inside of these! Did you find that the kale was at all like spinich?

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16 Sally December 11, 2011 at 8:49 am

Hi Jeff. I used to make these with spinach. I like the kale even better. I may even try adding more kale to the recipe next time!

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17 Joanne (Inspired Taste) February 7, 2012 at 5:14 pm

I love stuffed shells and am excited with kale used instead of spinach here. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

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18 Jamieanne April 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm

I made this the other night as I’ve had a big thing for pasta lately! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find kale anywhere, so substituted spinach. It was very, very delicious and I’m sure I’ll be making it again – hopefully I can find kale next time though! :)

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19 Katie March 3, 2013 at 1:40 pm

What a lovely and easy meal to make. Even my finicky 4 year old loved them and asked for seconds. Thanks for the great recipe Sally!

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20 Vidya April 17, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Tried this today, so surprised at how easy it was to make and my 2 yr old loved it! Thanks for posting.

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21 McKinna May 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I tried this yesterday and it was SO delicious. I used curly organic Kale, because thats all I could find and it worked really well. I used an entire bunch because I had no idea how many “leaves” would equal the 9 oz. Mine turned out to look like they had significantly more Kale than yours, but like I said, they tasted great!! This was my first time ever eating Kale and it was such a positive experience. Thanks so much, My husband might even be willing to eat these! (he wants meat in every dish and tries to get away without eating veggies, but he usually likes my vegetarian stuffed shells with spinach)

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22 Sally May 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Thanks for commenting McKinna. Glad it was a hit. The more kale the better! And if you ever have more kale than you need, it keeps well in the fridge for a few days for other uses. Sounds like we have a new kale convert! Some things are so good you don’t miss the meat. Another recipe like that is my mushroom marinara. He’ll never miss the meat, because mushrooms are so “meaty”. If you are now on the kale path, try the warm kale salad too.

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23 Shelly September 21, 2013 at 1:48 am

Loved them! Couldn’t find the giant shells so I used manicotti shells. Don’t know why I never thought about this before, but I cut each one up the side instead of stuffing them. This made it so much easier.

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24 Sally September 21, 2013 at 9:29 am

Great idea Shelly! Will make a note for other readers!

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