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Food

A Crowd-Pleaser With the Right Stuff

Posted June 26, 2018 4:26 p.m. EDT

Traditional stuffed and baked Italian-American jumbo shells are an easy sell. Filled with ricotta, topped with red sauce and cheese, and baked until bubbly, they’re easier to make than lasagna and just as satisfying.

But for a recent dinner party, I wanted something a bit lighter: still stuffed shells, just more summery. So I came up with a version that dispenses with the tomato sauce in favor of a lighter pesto. (Though if you miss that pop of red with your pasta, some sliced ripe tomatoes on the side would be more than welcome, as would a salad of dressed arugula or other greens.)

It’s simply a matter of spooning the herbed ricotta mixture into giant pasta shells that have been cooked and cooled. A one-pound box of shells contains about 36 to 40 shells, but the work goes quickly.

Just make sure to get the good ricotta. The better your ricotta, the better the result. In my neighborhood, I’m lucky to have a couple of stores that sell both domestic and imported sheep’s milk ricotta, as well as excellent local cow’s milk ricotta. But if that is unavailable to you, look for the least-processed brands of cow’s milk ricotta (read the label) and check the date: Fresh ricotta should have a sweet dairy flavor, with no hint of sourness.

The filled shells are drizzled lightly with olive oil, dusted with grated pecorino and breadcrumbs, baked briefly in a hot oven until nicely browned, then napped with a bright green, garlicky pesto sauce.

A quintessential party food, the resulting dish is more akin to crispy ravioli than a juicy, long-baked casserole. A word of fair warning: These shells can be addictive. For a fancier meal, serve 2 or 3 shells as a first course, followed by something from the grill. But it’s also a satisfying as a main (5 to 6 shells will do).

When it’s time, I like to take the whole dish to the table and serve it family-style, passing the pesto in a small bowl.

If you’d rather spend a hot afternoon in some cool or shady spot instead of in the kitchen, you can easily get everything ready in the morning. Truth be told, you could even do it a day in advance. But, for those who are loath to boil a pot of water or turn on the oven when the summer heat is at full force, let me just say three little words: They’re worth it.

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Ricotta-Stuffed Shells With Pesto

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Total time: 1 1/2 hours

For the shells:

Salt and pepper

1 pound giant pasta shells made from semolina (500 grams on some imported brands), 36 to 40 pieces

24 ounces fresh ricotta, about 2 1/2 cups

2 eggs

3 or 4 scallions, green and white parts, finely chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme, marjoram or rosemary

Zest and juice of 1 small lemon

Pinch of crushed red pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan

1/2 cup grated pecorino, plus 1/4 cup more for topping

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup fine dry breadcrumbs

For the pesto:

2 cups basil leaves, rinsed and dried

1 cup Italian parsley leaves, rinsed and dried

1 or 2 finely grated garlic cloves

Salt and pepper

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1. Put a large pot of well-salted water over high heat, and bring to a boil. Add the pasta shells, put the lid on the pot to help water return to a boil, then remove lid, stir pasta and continue cooking, uncovered until al dente, usually about 10 minutes. (It’s better to err on the undercooked side than risk flabby pasta, so check early and often.)

2. Remove pasta from pot and cool in a large bowl of water. Drain well and spread cooked shells on a baking sheet lined with a kitchen towel.

3. Meanwhile, make the ricotta filling: In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta, eggs, scallions, parsley, thyme, lemon zest and juice, and crushed red pepper to taste. Add grated Parmesan and pecorino. Season well with salt and pepper and mix well to incorporate ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning.

4. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil a large shallow baking dish (use 2 dishes if necessary). Using a spoon or pastry bag, put about 1 tablespoon ricotta mixture into each pasta shell. Arrange the filled shells in one layer in the baking dish, packed closely together. Drizzle surface lightly with olive oil, or use a small brush to lightly paint each shell.

5. Sprinkle top with 1/4 cup pecorino and breadcrumbs and bake, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until heated through, crisp and golden brown.

6. To make the pesto, pulse basil, parsley, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a blender or food processor until roughly chopped. Add oil slowly and blend well. Add a little pepper, taste and adjust seasoning and transfer to a serving bowl.

7. To serve, drizzle shells with a little pesto sauce and pass the rest at the table.

And to Drink …

The rule for pairing with pasta dishes is to match the wine to the sauce. The combination of ricotta and pesto calls for a crisp, dry white of the type found all over Italy. Choose any one you like: Soave from the Veneto, Gavi from the Piedmont, verdicchio from Le Marche, Etna Bianco from Sicily or Fiano from Campania, just to name a handful. You don’t have to restrict yourself to Italy, either. Try a vermentinu from Corsica, as vermentino is called there. Aligoté from Burgundy, Chablis or Sancerre all would be delicious. How about a Greek white? You get the idea. This is not the dish for a red. Its pungency would smother the flavors of the wine.

— Eric Asimov