Make tonight Italian dinner night with these jumbo pasta shells stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, baked with spicy Italian sausage, mozzarella cheese, and crunchy breadcrumbs until piping hot and bubbly.
- These super-stuffed and layered pasta shells are super decadent, are can be made in less than 1 hour.
- The dish combines vegetables, protein and pasta in one dish, so you don't need a side dish, except maybe this awesome Garlic Knot Bread.
- For a convenient freezer friendly meal later, the entire recipe can be prepared in advance and stored in the freezer, then baked later for an effortless and satisfying dinner.
Pasta shells- known as conchiglioni, and typically available in 12 ounce boxes (about 45 shells per box).
Ground Italian sausage- I like spicy, but you can use mild, or even country sausage (no added maple, etc.) for a completely non-spicy flavor.
Spinach- Fresh spinach is preferred, frozen will be too watery.
Red bell pepper- can substitute green bell pepper.
Canned diced tomatoes- plain in juice, or fire roasted for spicy kick and drained.
Ricotta cheese-whole milk ricotta is richer than lighter versions, and tastes much better but light ricotta can be used keeping in mind the filling won't be as rich and creamy.
Mozzarella cheese- whole milk melts better, but low moisture/ part skim is a great swap. Just be sure to shred it off the block and don't use pre shredded.
For additional flavor, torn fresh basil leaves are delicious when scattered over the top before baking.
A layer of bread crumbs sprinkled over the dish prior to baking makes a nice crunchy bite that is a great contrast to the melty cheese and soft filling.
Parmesan cheese also never hurt anyone.
Crushed red pepper flake is a great alternative to sprinkle over one half of the casserole, if for example, some family members didn't want the spicy sausage but some prefer some heat.
All of these topping additions are optional, and can be used in any combination including all of them!
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). This is a pretty high temperature, but since everything in the casserole is cooked, it's only necessary to brown and melt everything.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta shells. Do not go beyond the package directions for 'al dente', as they will further cook in the oven as well.
Boil the pasta in salted water (photo 1), drain and toss with a bit of olive oil or butter to prevent them from sticking while they cool enough to handle.
While the pasta cooks, chop the fresh spinach, and fold into the ricotta cheese (photo 2) and set aside.
Fry ground sausage in a skillet on medium high heat. At the halfway browned point, add the diced peppers and onions and minced garlic (photo 3). If necessary, drain most, but not all of grease out. Finish sautéing until sausage is brown and crisp and vegetables are caramelized (photo 4).
Add the canned, drained tomatoes to the skillet and stir to combine (photos 5 and 6). Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside.
In about a 13x9 inch, or roughly 3 quart casserole dish, spread some of the meat and tomato skillet along the bottom of the dish (photo 7). This is mostly to prevent sticking, and add flavor to the underside of the pasta.
Stuff each pasta shell with the spinach and ricotta mixture, and nestle them one by one in a single layer (photos 8 and 9) in the casserole dish until the entire dish is lined (photo 10). You may have some leftover shells.
Scoop the meat and vegetable mixture from the skillet over the shells to cover (photo 11), then top with shredded mozzarella cheese (photo 12).
If you so desire, finish the top layer with crunchy bread crumbs, fresh torn basil leaves, Parmesan cheese or crushed red pepper flake before transferring the dish to the oven.
Bake the pasta shells for about 10-12 minutes until the edges have browned and the cheese is melted and bubbly.
Remove from oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes, and serve.
Freezer Meal Method
It's easiest and most convenient to make this dish exactly as the recipe lays out, but use sturdy foil baking trays to assemble it in. That way you don't have to use up your casserole dish for who knows how long until you're ready to bake it.
You do not need to bake this before freezing it.
To bake it, preheat the oven temperature to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Bake the pasta shells, uncovered for 45-55 minutes until heated through and browned on the edges.
If the edges or top are getting too browned, too quickly just cover it with a bit of foil, and remove the foil during the last 10-20 minutes of cooking time.
Notes and Tips
Ricotta- set it out on the counter at the beginning; it's easier to mix when it's less cold.
Spinach- if you had to rinse it, pat it dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture (and watering down your ricotta).
For a lighter version of this recipe, substitute:
Chickpea or brown rice shells for regular white shells
Turkey sausage for pork sausage
Skim mozzarella and ricotta for whole milk
Increase the amount of spinach, while reducing the amount of ricotta cheese by half.
Substituting regular shell pasta with chickpea or brown rice shells, the pork sausage for turkey sausage, and using skim ricotta and mozzarella, and increasing the ratio of spinach to cheese can drastically reduce the amount of fats, refined carbs, and calories in spinach and ricotta stuffed shells.
Any kind of garlic bread or breadsticks and a classic but simple tossed salad with Italian dressing.
Freeze the prepared shells, then bake from frozen when ready to eat them.
Tried these ricotta and spinach stuffed shells? Rate this recipe below!
Stuffed Pasta Shells
- 12 oz jumbo pasta shells cooked al dente
- olive oil or butter for tossing pasta
- 1 lb. ricotta cheese
- 6 oz. baby spinach leaves chopped
- 1 lb ground italian sausage
- 4 cloves garlic peeled, minced
- ½ medium sweet onion diced
- ½ medium red bell pepper diced
- 15 oz. canned diced tomatoes can use plain in juice, or fire roasted
- 1 cup mozzarella cheese shredded
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees and bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
- Boil pasta shells (12 oz) to al dente, strain, and toss with a drizzle of olive oil or butter to prevent from sticking while they cool.
- While pasta cooks, fold together ricotta cheese (16 oz.) and chopped spinach (6 oz.) in a bowl, and set aside.
- Meanwhile, fry ground Italian sausage (1 lb.) in a skillet on medium high heat, and halfway through, add minced garlic, onion, and bell pepper. Finish sautéing until sausage is crispy and vegetables are caramelized.
- Add canned tomatoes, drained to skillet and stir to combine. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Spread a small amount of the meat mixture over the bottom of a 3 quart, or 13x9 inch casserole dish to prevent sticking.
- Use a spoon to scoop the ricotta and spinach mixture into each shell, one by one, and nestle side by side in a single layer in the casserole dish until it is completely full. They can be squished in there, but you might have some extra leftover shells.
- Spoon the rest of the meat mixture evenly over the shells.
- Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese over the top. If desired sprinkle breadcrumbs, fresh basil, crushed red pepper, or grated Parmesan (optional).
- Bake at 450 degrees until golden and bubbly, about 10-12 minutes.
- If necessary, drain grease from skillet as ground sausage cooks.
- Make sure rinsed spinach is completely dry before folding into ricotta cheese.
- Set the ricotta cheese out 10-20 minutes before hand for easier folding.
- For a lighter version of this recipe, substitute: chickpea or brown rice shells for regular white shells, turkey sausage for pork sausage, and skim mozzarella and ricotta for whole milk; double the amount of spinach, while reducing the amount of ricotta cheese by half.