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Eric Akis: Tuck into some saucy, squash-stuffed pasta shells

Vegetarian recipe is a little fussy to make but yields a comforting, satisfying meal
Jumbo pasta shells, filled with squash and ricotta are topped with asiago cheese, and baked in tomato sauce. ERIC AKIS

I felt like making pasta for dinner the other day and when perusing the different dried types at a grocery store, the jumbo shells caught my eye. It had been a while since I had prepared them, and when I have, they’ve always yielded a comforting, satisfying meal.

I put a box of them in my grocery cart and my next decision was what to stuff them with.

In the past, I’ve made meat fillings, seafood ones, and ones rich with ricotta cheese and spinach. I decided to go with the latter, but opted to leave out the spinach and replace it with squash.

To make the stuffed shells, I cooked the pasta in a generous amount of simmering salted water. You don’t want to rapidly boil the shells, or they could fray around the edges and split. That said, I do always cook a few more shells than my recipe calls for, just in case some do split during cooking.

When cooking the shells, I did not add a bit of oil to the water as suggested on the box, as the generous amount of water prevents the shells from sticking together. Adding oil to the water also coats the pasta with a thin film of it, making the shells more difficult to hold onto and stuff.

When cooked, the pasta was drained, cooled in cold water and drained again. A heaping teaspoon or so of mashed, seasoned squash was then set in each shell. The shells were then filled with a ricotta/egg mixture, flavoured with garlic, herbs, Parmesan cheese and nutmeg.

The stuffed shells were set in a baking dish that had a generous amount of tomato sauce-like passata di pomodoro in it. The shells were then topped with some tangy, grated asiago cheese, and then baked until hot, bubbly and delicious.

The shells are a little fussy to make because you do, of course, have to individually stuff each one. But you can make the shells oven-ready hours in advance. If you do that, cover the dish of them with foil and keep refrigerated until ready to bake. And add a few minutes to the baking time, as you’ll be starting from cold.

Serve the stuffed shells with a simple green salad or caesar salad, and some warm Italian bread, buns or garlic bread.

Jumbo Pasta Shells with Ricotta and Squash

Saucy, baked, jumbo pasta shells, tastily filled with mashed squash and an herb- and garlic-flavoured ricotta cheese mixture.

Preparation time: 60 minutes

Cooking time: 60-62 minutes

Makes: four to five servings

20 jumbo pasta shells (plus a few more, just in case some split during cooking)

2 cups cubed, peeled banana squash (see Note 1)

1 Tbsp soft butter

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

• pinches of ground nutmeg

1 (250 gram or similar sized) tub ricotta cheese

1 large egg

1 large garlic clove, minced

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley, plus some for sprinkling

1/2 tsp dried basil

1/2 tsp dried oregano

• pinch red pepper flakes

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 (680 mL) jar passata di pomodoro (see Note 2)

1/4 cup water

1/2 to 3/4 cup grated asiago cheese, or to taste (see Eric’s Options)

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil to cook the pasta.

While it comes to temperature, place the squash in a medium pot, cover with cold water, set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat until water simmers, and then simmer squash until very tender, about 12 minutes. Drain squash well, thoroughly mash, mix in the butter, and then season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Set squash aside for now.

When water in the large pot is boiling, add the shells. Bring water to a gentle simmer, lowering the heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Cook the pasta until just tender, about 8 to 10 minutes. Carefully drain the shells, cool in cold water, and then drain again. Set shells on a baking sheet.

Place the ricotta cheese in a medium bowl and mix in the egg, garlic, 2 Tbsp chopped parsley, basil, oregano, salt, pepper, pinch of nutmeg and Parmesan cheese. Pour the passata and water into a 13- x 9-inch baking dish and mix to combine. Preheat oven to 375 F.

Set a heaping teaspoon of the mashed squash into each of the 20 pasta shells, setting the shells back on the baking sheet as you go along. Top the squash in each shell with the ricotta mixture, filling them as full as you can.

Set the stuffed pasta shells, stuffed side up, in the baking dish. Sprinkle the shells with the asiago cheese. Cover with foil and bake 25 minutes. Uncover and bake 15 minutes more, or until the pasta is very light golden on top and the passata is bubbling. Sprinkling with chopped parsley and serve.

Note 1: Chunks of cut and seeded banana squash are sold at most supermarkets. A 350-gram piece should yield the cubed squash needed here. Other types of peeled, cubed squash, such as butternut, could also be used.

Note 2: Passata di pomodoro, also called strained tomatoes, is sold in tall jars in the pasta sauce aisle of most grocery stores.

Eric’s Options: Instead of asiago, top the shells with grated provolone or mozzarella cheese.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.