Cheesy Vegetable Stuffed Pasta--Shells or Cannelloni

Most people like pasta. The whole world doesn't subsist on potatoes.  I'm a macaroni and cheese girl myself, but I do like other pasta dishes.  Spaghetti and lasagna are favourites at our house but every once in a while I like to do something different, or at least use a different shape pasta.  They say you first eat with your eyes so mixing up the pasta shapes will sometimes revive an old family standby that's becoming ho-hum.  

Stuffed Pasta is basically the same as lasagna.  The stuffing is similar and the sauce is similar or exactly the same.  But the shape is totally different, especially the jumbo shells.  Children love to see the shells on their plate and if anyone asks skeptically if lasagna is on the menu--again--you can truthfully say, "No, it's stuffed pasta shells (or cannelloni or whatever)."  And everyone is happy. 

This is a particularly tasty cheese and vegetable filling.  Don't leave out the pinch of nutmeg as it gives a nice subtle flavour that perfectly complements the spinach.  Have no fear if ricotta cheese is not to be found in the grocery store (or is so expensive you need a bank loan).  You can use cottage cheese very successfully.  I often use cottage cheese in place of the ricotta.  The flavour is slightly different but not in a bad way.  Any stuffable pasta will work with this filling so choose your shape and start stuffing.  Slightly under cook the pasta as it will continue cooking when the pasta is baked.

I've included an optional cheese sauce that can be used instead of or with the tomato sauce.  

Stuffed Pasta
250 gram package cannelloni pasta or jumbo shells cooked according to package directions but slightly undercooked by a minute or two.
(The shells may be in a larger size package.  Mine were in a 340 gram package.)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil 
1 heaping cup shredded carrots
1 medium onion, diced
½ cup diced green pepper (or any colour sweet pepper)
1 teaspoon dry basil
1 teaspoon dry oregano
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon pepper, or to taste

1 container ricotta cheese, 475 grams about 2 cups (or you may use cottage cheese)
1 egg
1 cup thawed frozen spinach, squeezed dry after measuring
½ cup dry bread crumbs
1 cup shredded cheddar or mozzarella cheese
Pinch of nutmeg

680 ml can tomato or pasta sauce, about 3 cups
Cheese sauce, optional (recipe below)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese for top

Grease or pan spray a large lasagna dish at least 9x13-inches or larger. 

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Cook the pasta according to package directions.  Drain and rinse in with cold water and lay aside while making the filling.

Heat the vegetable oil in large frying pan.  Over medium heat sauté carrots, onions and green peppers until crisp tender.  Add the basil, oregano, salt and pepper.  Remove from heat and let cool a little.

In a large bowl combine ricotta cheese, egg, spinach, bread crumbs, shredded cheese and nutmeg.    Add the cooled sautéed vegetables to the cheese mixture and combine well.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees while filling the pasta.

Place a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the prepared baking dish.  Spoon or squeeze filling into cooked cannelloni or shells.  A pastry bag will make this process much easier.   Place filled pasta in a single layer in the baking dish.  Cover with remaining tomato sauce.  Rinse the can with a little water and pour that over the pasta, as well.  If desired a layer of cheese sauce may be poured over the tomato sauce.  Sprinkle with the second amount of shredded mozzarella cheese.

Bake for 30-40 minutes until bubbling and hot and cheese is starting to turn a golden brown around the edges. 

Fills about 18-20 cannelloni or 6-9 servings.
Fills about 38 jumbo shells or  8-12 servings.

Optional Cheese Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups cold milk
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter over medium heat. Add the flour and stir and cook over low heat about 1 minute until the mixture bubbles.  Pour in the cold milk and stir until mixture thickens and comes to a low boil.  Simmer over low heat for 2 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in the shredded cheese.  Season with salt and pepper.    Makes a little more than 2 cups of sauce. 

Mix the ricotta cheese, and spinach together.  Sauté the carrots, onions and green pepper in the oil adding the herbs, salt and pepper.

Combine the sautéed vegetables with the cheese mixture.  When everything is combined you will be ready to stuff your choice of pasta.

Cook the pasta while the you are making the filling.  This 250 gram package of pasta contains 18 cannelloni.  

The shells will take longer to cook than the cannelloni.  This 340 gram package holds about 38 jumbo shells.

Fill a pastry bag with the filling for easy stuffing.  If you don't have a pastry bag, use a spoon.  This recipe is enough to fill 18 cannelloni with enough left over for a few jumbo shells.  I didn't have the energy to climb to the top of the cupboards to find my largest dish so I split the recipe between two smaller dishes.  Don't crowd the pasta as it will swell even more during baking. 

I tucked a few shells in around the cannelloni in the smaller dish but I had 3 shells left over so I baked those in an individual sized baking dish.  These are baked in a cheese sauce.

This is the larger dish.  I poured cheese sauce over the tomato sauce and sprinkled mozzarella cheese on top and baked it until bubbling and golden. 

Here's the finished product.  I took the large dish to a church potluck and left the smaller one at home for another day.  I had extra cheese sauce so I just poured it all over the dish on the right.  There is a layer of tomato sauce but it's barely peeking through.

Here are the shells. They swell quite large during the cooking and baking process.  I think three make a nice serving.

The cannelloni also swells during the cooking.  You can see the tasty filling peeking out of the pasta tube.

Serve with a salad and crusty garlic bread for a satisfying meal.


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