Conchiglioni, jumbo pasta shells filled with a vegetarian mix of ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan with crunchy walnuts and fresh herbs, baked in tomato sauce. Sounds like a dream dish? That’s because it is truly divine.
Homemade pasta from scratch? Nah
I have over the years made fresh pasta quite a few times, with varied result.
Once the dough turned out to be a cannonball that didn’t even want to roll out. Another time my tagliatelle disintegrated in the boiling water.
And there was the one when my tortellini became a mass of dough and a – separate – mass of filling. But I have also had some reasonable success with plain pasta, pappardelle or linguine.
Not so much with filled pasta though, as evidenced by the tortellini episode.
Filled pasta? I go for conchiglie
No wonder I consider conchiglie a heaven-sent invention: ready-made pasta pockets you can stuff with whatever your heart desires. Tortellini or ravioli filling never really tastes of anything much anyway, 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.
There are three kinds of shells, depending on the size: regular conchiglie, petit conchigliette and mutant, jumbo conchiglione. The latter two are best for filling, needless to say.
It’s the best of all worlds, because in a dish like this you 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.
This recipe is about 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.
How to prepare the three cheese filling
It’s not complicated but a few points are worth paying attention to.
First off, ricotta should be drained well, otherwise the filling will be too wet and the pasta swimming in water. You can do it by placing the ricotta in a cheesecloth or muslin-lined sieve or colander, set over a bowl. Incidentally, the released liquid (whey) is marvellous for baking bread.
You could use only ricotta in this recipe, but adding mozzarella makes the filling nice and gooey. Plus, some mozzarella is added onto oven-ready dish, because you can’t have a pasta bake without melty, bubbly cheese, can you?
And some grated Parmesan adds a sharper flavour as well as helps keep the filling together.
To that three-cheese mix toasted, fragrant walnut pieces are added, together with some walnuts processed to crumbs. You can also bash them in a plastic bag with a rolling pin or the bottom of a frying pan. Or just chop some finer if you prefer.
That leaves only herbs, basil and parsley, to be mixed in, with seasoning and a little honey.
Do pasta shells need to be parboiled?
I’m afraid this is not a quick weeknight dish: the conchiglie indeed need to be pre-cooked.
There isn’t much liquid in the dish unlike in lasagne which has bechamel sauce and meat sauce, which will cook dry pasta sheets. Unless you pour in floods of really watery tomato sauce, which you don’t want to do as drowning the pasta would dilute the filling, parboiling is on order.
I also find that it’s much easier to fill the shells when they are pliable and don’t threaten to crack and break while being manipulated.
Homemade tomato sauce or jar?
Tomato sauce is always worth making at home, but if you want to cut corners, use good quality shop-bought sauce.
If you want to bother, it’s easy but takes a little time. Use a tin of good quality chopped tomatoes, or whole peeled ones (San Marzano recommended). In the latter case crush them roughly with your fingers before adding to the saucepan with garlic sweated in olive oil, and in both cases add them in with all the juices.
A pinch of chilli flakes, salt and black pepper, and a few whole basil sprigs which can be later discarded is all the seasoning the sauce will need. The longer, up to an hour, the sauce cooks, the tastier it will be.
Depending on whether you like it chunkier or smoother, crush the tomato pieces with a potato ricer halfway through the cooking time.
Filling and baking
Filling the precooked shells, with about a teaspoon each, is the final task. They should then be arranged in an ovenproof dish large enough to fit them all comfortably in a single layer. Tip: find the appropriate dish beforehand by measuring it out with dry pasta shells.
There should be a scant layer of sauce at the bottom with the rest of it spooned around the pasta shells, without drowning them. Chunks or slices of remaining mozzarella on top, and the baking time is about half an hour until bubbling in the middle and crispy around the edges. Any leftover walnut pieces and chopped herbs should be scattered over the baked dish before serving.
So that’s quite a bit of preparation, but it’s totally worth the effort. On the plus side the whole dish can be prepared well ahead of time, even frozen, and just slipped in the oven when needed.
More filled pasta recipes
Fennel and spinach lasagne rolls, a pasta bake with gorgeously layered flavours of salty feta mixed into mild fennel, and creamy spinach sauce as a background to the rolled up, stuffed lasagne sheets.
Conchiglie with beef ragu, baked with mozzarella and parmesan. Pasta shells, or conchiglie, stuffed with meat and Parmesan are an easy dish and only a little time consuming. Prepare the ragu filling for pasta shells ahead of the time, then stuff the conchiglie and bake on a bed of tomato sauce.
Pasta potstickers, pan-fried then steamed tortellini or cappelletti, make a shop-bought filled pasta into a special dish of Asian-style crispy dumplings with pancetta.
More ricotta recipes
Vegetarian version of lasagne with spinach and ricotta. Easier to make than beef lasagne, this recipe uses cooked cream sauce instead of bechamel.
Beef, ricotta and oregano meatballs from Ottolenghi are delicate and light, cooked in a richly flavoured tomato and onion sauce.
Hazelnut ricotta cake with apricot and chocolate glaze is smooth with a poppy crunch, like velvet dipped in glitter. It is rich but tastes light, so you‘re tempted to have another slice.