When I first started going to my all-girls school at seven years old, I was confronted with a lot of "new things"—new to me anyway. Uniforms that zipped up the back instead of the front (as my old ones had done), calling our teachers Mrs. So-And-So and washing our hands before lunch (neither was enforced at my previous and less prestigious education institution), and mandatory recorder lessons. So much for a little girl to take in! But one thing twinkled like a diamond in the rough: manicotti.
Pasta lover though I was—and I was—I had never encountered the stuffed variety. Lunch at that school was always a sit-down affair, full of roast chickens and rice pilaf and buttered green beans. But every so often was manicotti day, and I would revel in the little tubes, tunnels under a Hudson River of tomato sauce, stuffed with ricotta that burst with enthusiasm out each end without any prodding or encouragement. One nudge from my fork and the whole thing collapsed, white gushing into red, and I would use the side of my fork as a spoon and raise the mashed mess into my mouth. Amid that new world, it was a mouthful of comfort. Every after, I was hooked: shells, tubes, ravioli, tortellini. They are all sunshine on a snowy day.
This recipe takes my old Italian favorite and stuffs it with French flavors. Undercooked pasta shells are stuffed with a light mixture of ricotta, goat cheese, green vegetables, mint, and tarragon. The resulting flavor is almost summery, but is then enveloped in a creamy, wintry béchamel, and gratin-ed in a crust of goat cheese until bubbly and golden. It serves a crowd, and imparts drizzly day comfort.
- 50 jumbo pasta shells
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter, plus 1 tablespoon
- 1 extra large shallot, finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 zucchini, finely diced
- 2 cup broccoli florets, chopped up finely
- 1 10-ounce box frozen spinach, thawed, and wrung out of all excess liquid
- 1/2 cup thawed frozen peas
- 2 pounds ricotta cheese
- 4 ounces goat cheese, plus 4 ounces
- 2 stems mint, leaves chopped
- 1 stem tarragon, leaves chopped
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1/2 cup milk
- 3 cups heavy cream
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 3/4 cup parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta, and salt it. Butter two 9x13 baking dishes.
Cook the jumbo pasta shells in the boiling water until just under al dente. Drizzle a large baking sheet lightly with oil, and spread the shells out on it to allow them to become cool enough to handle.
In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter, and add the shallot, garlic, zucchini, broccoli, and spinach. Season, and cook until fragrant and soft—about 5 to 7 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, mix the ricotta, 4 ounces of chèvre, the egg yolk, the mint and tarragon, and the peas in a large bowl. When the vegetable mixture has slightly cooled, add it to the cheese mixture, and mix to combine.
Stuff the shells with the cheese mixture, and place seam-side-down in the buttered baking dishes. Pour half the béchamel over each baking dish. Top with the remaining crumbled chevre and parmesan.
Bake the shells covered for 30 minutes at 375°F. Then raise the heat to 400, and bake another 30 minutes uncovered, or just until the top is golden and bubbly.