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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.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 extra large shallot, finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 zucchini, finely cubed (brunoise)
- 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
- 50 jumbo pasta shells
- 1 tablesppon butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1/2 cup milk
- pinch of nutmeg
- 2 pounds ricotta cheese
- 4 ounces goat cheese, plus 4 ounces
- 2 stems mint, leaves chopped
- 1 stem tarragon, leaves chopped
- 1 egg yolk
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 3/4 cup parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F. Bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta, and salt it. Butter two 9”x13” baking dishes.
- Cook the jumbo pasta shells in the boiling water until just under al dente. Drizzle a large baking sheet 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 the butter, and add the shallot, garlic, zucchini, broccoli, and spinach. Season, and cook until fragrant and soft—about 5 to 7 minutes. Spoon into a bowl to cool.
- Meanwhile, mix the ricotta, 4 ounces of chevre, 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.
- Make the béchamel by melting the butter in a saucepot. Whisk in the flour, and allow to cook over medium heat—watching with a close eye—for about 3 or 4 minutes, until the mixture smells a bit like cookies baking in the oven. Whisk in the cold milk, and then the cold cream. This won’t thicken as much as a traditional béchamel, so just whisk as you heat it through. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg.
- Stuff the shells with the cheese mixture, and place seam-side-down in the butter baking dishes. Pour half the béchamel over each baking dish. Top with more crumbled chevre, and parmesan.
- Bake the shells covered for 30 minutes at 375 degrees F. Then raise the heat to 400, and bake another 30 minutes uncovered.