I'm not sure how it is that I'd never fully realized it until recently, but many of the most famous Italian-American baked pasta dishes are...exactly the same. Manicotti, lasagna, baked ziti, stuffed shells. All. The. Same. Each one combines a type of pasta with ricotta, mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and tomato sauce, and calls itself a unique dish. Of course, it's a winning formula—there's no argument about how delicious they all are—but you gotta admit, it gets a little tired after a while.
So let's change it up.
Today, I'm again tackling shells. And I'm doing something that is fairly unusual, but also deeply, deeply obvious: I'm stuffing them with seafood.
Now, I have a weakness for shellfish, so I'll acknowledge that I'm biased, but I'm just going to go out on a limb and say it anyway. Once you eat these shells, you won't think about the ricotta-stuffed variety again.* Imagine: a dish of plump pasta shells, each one loaded with a rich mixture of crabmeat, shrimp, and scallops, baked in a creamy sauce, with buttery toasted bread crumbs on top.
Okay, maybe you will, but will you be sure you aren't thinking of manicotti instead?
It's pretty easy to put the whole thing together. Start by making the filling, which combines crabmeat with diced poached shrimp and diced scallops. (You can also skip the scallops and just use an equal amount of additional shrimp; it'll work either way.) Then stir in Dijon mustard, mayo, a dash of Old Bay, and both minced shallot and parsley.
Then spoon that mixture into par-cooked jumbo pasta shells. Most boxes of shells will give two cooking times: one for eating al dente, the other for par-cooking before baking. Follow that par-cooking time if your box lists it. Otherwise, just cook the pasta three minutes less than the directions say.
The sauce is just a basic béchamel, using a low ratio of flour and butter to milk—one tablespoon of flour and butter per cup of milk. That creates a relatively thin sauce, which is what we want, since it'll thicken up in the oven as it bakes.
To make the béchamel, follow the classic method: Melt the butter in a saucepan and whisk in the flour to form a paste, cooking until its raw smell cooks off. Then whisk in milk slowly, making sure to smooth it out as you go so that lumps don't form. I simmer a bay leaf in this one, since it's a flavor that works well with seafood.
Some of the sauce gets ladled into the bottom of a baking dish, then the shells are arranged on top and the remaining sauce is spooned over them. I top that with panko bread crumbs that I've tossed with melted butter and salt, then bake the whole thing in the oven until the shells are heated through and the panko is golden.
Serve it up and take a bite. Your first thought will be something like, "Oh my god, this is insane, why haven't I eaten this before?" And the second thought will be, "Wait a second, I have eaten this before—aren't these really just crab cakes in a pasta shell?"
What can I say: Guilty as charged! Replicating a good idea in a slightly different form isn't necessarily such a bad thing, is it?