Why It Works
- Slightly undercooking the pasta during boiling ensures that it stays al dente during baking.
- The light béchamel looks too loose at first, but it thickens up as it bakes.
- Poaching the shrimp directly in the pasta water pot makes cleanup easier.
- Panko bread crumbs add extra crunch and texture.
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 crab meat 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?
6 ounces dry jumbo pasta shells (about 25 shells; 170g) (see note)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling and greasing the baking dish
8 ounces (225g) peeled and deveined shrimp
1 pound (450g) lump crabmeat, picked over for shells
8 ounces (225g) dry-packed sea scallops, cut into small pieces (see note)
2 tablespoons (30ml) Dijon mustard
1/2 cup (120ml) mayonnaise
Dash of Old Bay seasoning
1 medium shallot (about 2 ounces; 60g), minced
Small handful minced flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
Freshly ground black pepper
3 1/2 tablespoons (50g) unsalted butter, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons (12g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups (360ml) milk
1 bay leaf
1 cup panko bread crumbs (about 3 1/2 ounces; 100g)
Preheat oven to 325°F (163°C) and set rack to middle position. In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook shells according to package instructions for baked shells. (Many packages of jumbo shells will give a specific boiling time for dishes that are to be subsequently baked; if yours does not, cook shells for 3 minutes less than the package's recommended cooking time.) Using a spider, slotted spoon, or mesh strainer, carefully transfer shells to a large bowl of cold water until cooled slightly, then drain. (Reserve pasta-cooking water for next step.) Drizzle shells very lightly with oil and toss to coat. Set aside.
Fill a large bowl with ice water. Poach shrimp in same pot of pasta water until just barely cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain, chill in ice bath, then drain again. Chop shrimp into small pieces.
In a mixing bowl, combine crabmeat with shrimp, scallops, Dijon, mayo, Old Bay, shallot, and parsley. Mix well and season with salt and pepper.
In a small saucepan, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons (20g) butter over medium-high heat (do not allow it to brown). Add flour and whisk to form a paste. Continue to cook, stirring, until raw flour scent is gone, about 1 minute. Whisking constantly, add milk in a thin, steady stream, or in increments of a couple of tablespoons at a time, whisking thoroughly and getting into all corners of pan to maintain a homogeneous texture. The sauce will initially be very thick, then get very thin once all the milk is added. Add bay leaf.
Heat, stirring, until sauce comes to a simmer and begins to thicken slightly. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring, until sauce is thick enough to lightly coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Discard bay leaf.
Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with oil. Spread 1/2 cup (120ml) béchamel sauce in an even layer on bottom of baking dish. Using a spoon, fill a shell with a large scoop of seafood mixture and place in baking dish with the opening side up. Repeat until baking dish is full. (You should be able to fit about 18 stuffed shells in the dish, and may have a few pasta shells leftover.)
Spoon remaining 1 cup (240ml) béchamel sauce on top of shells. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons (30g) butter and toss with bread crumbs in a small bowl; season with salt. Sprinkle bread crumbs all over shells.
Bake shells until heated through, about 25 minutes. Switch oven to broiler setting and, watching very closely to prevent burning, broil until bread crumbs turn golden on top, rotating baking dish occasionally for even browning. Scatter minced parsley on top for garnish and serve.
You will need about 18 shells total, but it's a good idea to cook extra to account for any that tear or break; half a 12-ounce box of jumbo shells should yield about 25. If you want, you can substitute the scallops with an equal quantity of additional shrimp.
9- by 13-inch baking dish
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 31g||39%|
|Saturated Fat 8g||42%|
|Total Carbohydrate 42g||15%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||8%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 4mg||22%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|