Monday, January 24, 2011

Artichoke and Pesto "Stuffed" Shells Bake

This dish was inspired by a favorite recipe of mine that comes from one of my Cooking Light Cookbooks (apparently, December 2007 was a very good month because there are several recipes that are stand outs in my book).  Anyway, after a lot of substitutions and shortcuts, this really became its own creation.  The original version called for large shells that you stuff individually (a bit time consuming for a weeknight dinner, so I substituted a box of medium shells--they do not have to be relegated to mayonnaise-filled seafood salads anymore!).  And, because I find many Italian dishes are improved by ricotta cheese and pesto, I worked those in there as well.  I divided the recipe into two batches and froze half, but by the time we were actually eating, I thought it might have been smarter just to serve the whole thing as all three of my boys went to town on it and not a bit remained.  It was a family hit! 

Artichoke and Pesto "Stuffed" Shells Bake
serves 6-8
1 16 oz. package dried medium shells pasta (or other desired shaped pasta)
1 24 oz jar marinara sauce (any tomato based pasta sauce would be fine)
1/4 cup chopped pepperoncini*
1 6.5 oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
1 15 oz. container ricotta cheese (I use low fat, part skim)
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
1 teaspoon garlic powder
a large pinch of ground nutmeg (about 1/8 teaspoon)
1/4 cup basil pesto sauce

*Pepperoncini are those little yellow-green peppers that are found in sitting off to the side in a Papa John's pizza box or on top of salads at the Olive Garden.  In stores, they can be found in jars by the olives.  They have a bit of a spicy kick and add a bit of zest to the pasta sauce but the amount is not enough to make the sauce actually spicy (feel free to adjust up or down in quantity based on your preference, however).

Directions: Prepare pasta according to package directions cooking until tender yet still firm (al dente).  Drain and set aside.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  In pot used to cook pasta shells, combine marinara sauce and pepperoncini.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat, reduce heat to low and keep warm.  In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients (reserve 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella and 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheeses for topping) and stir until well combined.  Add cooked pasta and stir well to coat.  Transfer to a 9x13 glass baking dish that is coated with non-stick cooking spray (or you can divide split it into two smaller dishes to save a meal for later or to bring to a friend).  Spread marinara sauce mixture evenly over top of pasta.  Sprinkle with remaining cheeses.  Bake at 375 degrees for about 20-30 minutes or until pasta is heated through (will be bubbling around sides) and cheese on top is browned.  Add a salad and dinner is served!

*Also, if I'd had it on hand, I would've added some chopped frozen spinach (thawed and drained) to the cheese mixture as well.  Alas, I was out this time but I highly recommend including some to add color and extra nutrition to the dish!
Inspired by Artichoke, Spinach and Feta Stuffed Shells from Cooking Light

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