giant shells with ricotta and walnuts
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I have made fresh pasta with varied result: a cannonball that didn’t even want to roll out; tagliatelle that disintegrated in the boiling water and tortellini that became a mass of dough and a – separate – mass of filling. I have also had reasonable success with the plain noodles but not so much with filled.
So no wonder I consider conchiglie or the mutant conchiglione a proper heaven sent invention: ready-made pasta pockets you can stuff with whatever your heart desires. Tortelloni or ravioli filling never tastes of anything much, perhaps because there’s so little of it; with shells – now we’re talking. They are also better than cannelloni at holding the filling in place.
It’s the best of all worlds really, because you also end up with a crisp-edged pasta bake, and there’s nothing better than that. Meat filling, spinach filling, tomato, cheese, ham or chicken, the world’s your conchiglio; I went for three cheese and walnut mix. Ricotta makes pasta taste really special – like it doesn’t quite know if it’s the main course or dessert, or both, but in a good way.
This is not a quick weeknight dish: the pasta shells need to be pre-cooked unless you pour in floods of really watery tomato sauce – which you don’t want to do as drowning the pasta will dilute the filling. Tomato sauce is always worth making at home, but if you want to cut corners, use good quality ready-bought sauce. On the plus side the whole dish can be prepared well ahead of time and just slipped in the oven when needed.
giant shells with ricotta and walnutsServings: 4 as a starter, 2 as a main courseTime: about 2 hours
- For the tomato sauce:
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- ½ tsp chili paste or a pinch of chili flakes
- 1 tin chopped tomatoes
- salt and pepper
- 3 sprigs basil
- For the pasta:
- 250g (1 cup) ricotta
- 120g (20) giant pasta shells
- olive oil
- 80g (½ cup) walnut pieces
- 150g (5 oz.) mozzarella
- 30g (2 tbsp.) grated Parmesan
- 1 tbsp. honey
- a small bunch of basil, leaves chopped finely
- ½ bunch of fresh parsley, leaves chopped finely
- salt and pepper
1. First prepare the tomato sauce: peel and finely chop the garlic clove and sweat it in the olive oil in a saucepan; don’t let it colour too much. Stir in the chili. Add the tomatoes with the juices, season generously with salt and pepper and add the whole basil sprigs. Cook covered, on medium heat, for 30-40 minutes. Halfway through the cooking time mash the tomato pieces gently with a potato ricer. Set aside.
2. Place the ricotta on a sieve lined with cheesecloth set over a bowl to drain the liquid (it’s good to do this well in advance, e.g. overnight).
3. Cook the pasta shells in plenty of salted water for exactly half the time advised on the package; usually it will be about 6 minutes. Drain them and rinse with cold water, drizzle with a little oil and leave them on a colander or a tray to drain – upside down if you can be bothered.
4. Break the walnuts into small pieces and toast them in a dry pan for at least 10 minutes, tossing around, until darkened and fragrant. Blitz half in a blender to coarse crumbs. Finely dice half the mozzarella and slice the other half.
5. Place the drained ricotta in a large bowl. Add the diced mozzarella, walnut crumbs and pieces (reserving a handful for garnish), most of the Parmesan, honey and most of the herbs. Mix it well, season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Spread a little tomato sauce at the bottom of a large baking dish, large enough to fit the shells in a single layer. Fill the shells with about a heaped spoonful of the filling each and place in the dish. Spoon the tomato sauce over the pasta, top with mozzarella slices and the remaining Parmesan.
7. Bake for 30 minutes until bubbling and scorched around the edges. Let it stand for at least 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining walnut pieces, herbs and extra Parmesan if you like, and serve.