This post is sponsored by Cakebread Cellars. Thank you for supporting Nerds with Knives’ sponsors!
Whenever we cook for a crowd, baked pasta is our go-to. All the prep can be done ahead of time, so all that we have to do is pop the pan in the oven, make a quick salad and open the wine. This time of year, the farmer’s market is bursting with early summer vegetables like Swiss chard, baby peas, spring onions and basil. So to celebrate the season, we made our stuffed shells with a mix of our favorite greens and paired them with the most delicious fontina cream sauce. And then popped the corks on a couple of bottles of white wine and enjoyed the sunshine!
Our wine of choice to pair with a beautiful early-summer outdoor dinner is something light with a subtle floral and fruit character. We’ve paired up with Cakebread Cellars’ Napa Valley Chardonnay and our garden peonies opened up just in time to help us celebrate the season.
Stuffed Shells – An Introduction
The combination of pasta and cheese sauce doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Making stuffed shells instead of a heavy, layered lasagna-style dish, and filling it with our favorite seasonal greens, makes it a dish that can work for any time of the day. We also love pairing the creamy, nutty Italian fontina cheese with a Chardonnay such as Cakebread Cellars’ beautifully rounded Napa Valley Chardonnay, with its fresh floral nose and citrusy bite. Both wine and cheese have an earthy minerality which perfectly complement each other.
Preparing the Greens
To get started with the stuffed shells, first prepare the veggies in the filling. We used Swiss chard (because we love it and it looked beautiful at the grocery store) but any dark green, such as kale or spinach, would work just as well. Separate the chard leaves from their tough ribs, discard the ribs and give the leaves a rough chop. Heat up a large skillet on medium-high and add a little olive oil. Sauté the sliced scallions, followed by the garlic, just until both are tender and fragrant, and add the chard along with a little salt and pepper.
The greens should only take a couple of minutes to soften, but can take six to eight minutes if you’re using something hardier such as curly kale. Just cook them until they’re nice and tender but still bright green. Set then pan aside and let the mixture cool to room temperature.
While the greens are cooling, cook the jumbo shells in plenty of salted boiling water until they’re just beginning to soften: this is usually about 3 minutes before the “recommended” cooking time, and ours were ready in about 7 minutes. Drain and rinse the shells well in cold water to stop them from overcooking. (I like to spread them out in a single layer on a sheet pan so they don’t stick together while I finish the filling.)
Now we add the cheeses. Tip: the moisture level of commercial ricottas can vary greatly, so if your ricotta is very wet and soupy, you should drain it in a cheesecloth-lined colander for an hour or so to extract some of the excess liquid.
Transfer the cooled chard to the bowl of a food processor and add the ricotta, mozzarella and Pecorino Romano cheeses (you’ll also sprinkle a little Romano on top of the dish before baking it), along with the egg, basil and a good pinch of salt and crack of pepper. Pulse the filling until it’s a fairly smooth mix, then transfer it to a bowl and stir in the peas. Stuff each shell with about 3 tablespoons of filling and place them in a buttered 9×13-inch ceramic baking dish or a medium cast iron pan.
Tip: You can stuff the shells up to a day ahead. Cover the baking dish with foil and refrigerate it until you’re ready to bake.
Making the Sauce
To make the sauce, melt a tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan set on medium-high heat, and stir in a tablespoon of flour. Cook the flour for two minutes (to cook out its raw flavor) and then whisk in the milk and cream. Keep whisking until the liquid begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low and slowly add the grated fontina, whisking until the sauce becomes glossy and smooth. Turn off the heat and add the nutmeg.
Tip: It’s much easier to grate cheese while it’s cold, so keep it in the refrigerator and then grate it on the wide side of a box grater.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF / 200ºC, and line a rimmed baking tray with foil to catch any drips. Slowly pour the sauce over the shells, then top them with a little more mozzarella and Pecorino. Pop the tray in the oven and cook until the sauce is bubbly and there are golden brown spots on top. Let the shells cool for at least five minutes before serving them.
We served our stuffed shells with roasted vine tomatoes on the side, and a few glasses of chilled white wine from our friends at Cakebread Cellars. It was a perfect way to kickstart the season and meet new friends … and we hope your summer is just as relaxed as ours. Cheers!
Summer Stuffed Shells with Creamy Fontina Sauce
- Unsalted butter for greasing the pan
- 1 lb. large pasta shells
For the filling:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 6 scallions finely sliced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 12 oz Swiss chard leaves roughly chopped, ribs discarded (1 large bunch)
- Kosher salt + freshly ground black pepper
- 15 oz whole milk ricotta cheese drained through a cheesecloth-lined colander if very wet
- 4 ounces shredded mozzarella about 1 cup
- 2 ounces grated Pecorino Romano about 3/4 cup
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves chopped
- 3/4 cup thawed frozen petite peas or blanched if fresh
For the Fontina Sauce:
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 6 ounces fontina cheese grated
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
For the topping
- 1 1/2 cups mozzarella shredded
- 2 tablespoons Pecorino Romano grated
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Grease a 9 by 13 inch glass baking dish (or cast iron pan) with butter.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the shells and cook until just barely tender, stirring occasionally, about 6 to 8 minutes. Drain the pasta and rinse with running cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
To make the Filling:
- Heat the oil over medium-high heat In a large skillet. Add the scallions and cook until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Sprinkle in the chard, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring constantly, until wilted, about 2 minutes. Allow the mixture to cool slightly. Place the ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, egg, basil, salt, and pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Add the cooled chard mixture and blend until smooth, about 15 pulses. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the peas. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Use a spoon to fill each shell with the mixture. Place the stuffed shells, filling side up, in the prepared baking dish.
To make the Fontina Sauce:
- Melt the butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan set over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the milk and cream and bring to a bare simmer, stirring often. Reduce heat to low and slowly add the fontina cheese, a handful at a time, stirring constantly, until the cheese is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the nutmeg.
- Pour the sauce over the shells and sprinkle with the mozzarella and Pecorino cheese. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the sauce is bubbly and the top is golden. Cool for 5 minutes and sprinkle with basil before serving.