Today is National Cheese Day, not to be confused with National Goat Cheese Month, which isn’t until August. (I personally find it amusing that all cheese gets only a day, while goat cheese apparently has a whole month. But since I love goat cheese, I’m hardly complaining.) Given the spirit of the day it seemed only appropriate to share something made with copious amounts of cheese. Although let’s face it, a good 90% of the recipes I make here probably incorporate cheese in some way, shape or form so at my house everyday is cheese day.
Still, I feel this stuffed shells recipe is a perfect tribute because it incorporates not one, but four cheeses – ricotta, cream cheese, parmesan cheese, and mozzarella cheese – along with some chicken, nicely crisped pancetta and fresh basil for a sumptuous filling. There are some recipes where a single, thoughtfully chosen cheese is more than enough, but I love how layering multiple cheeses lets you take advantage of each cheese’s inherent strengths. In this recipe, ricotta and cream cheese add a silken texture to the filling while parmesan lends its nutty, well aged flavor and mozzarella those perfect strings of molten cheesy goodness.
To balance it out, I served it with a light tomato and pepper sauce cut with just a little heavy whipping cream to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes and echo the creaminess in the cheese filling. The result is a pasta dish that’s a little too addictive for its own good. I will admit I brought a couple rounds of leftovers for lunch at work and found myself tucking into my tupperware containers at 11:30, unable to hold out for a proper lunchtime. It’s also endlessly versatile. You could easily swap the cream cheese for mascarpone, the mozzarella for a nice fontina, and the pancetta for some Canadian or smoked bacon. Personally, I find the swaps are great excuse to convince yourself it is an entirely different dish and eat it more often.
Adapted very loosely from The Food Network
-Half a box of jumbo pasta shells (6 ounces uncooked)
-3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
-1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
-2 cups chopped banana peppers
-2 14.5 ounce cans diced Italian style tomatoes
-1/4 teaspoon sea salt, plus additional for seasoning filling to taste
-1/2 teaspoon Tuscan-style seasoning (Italian-style seasoning would also work)
-1 bay leaf
-1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
-3 ounces cubed pancetta
-1 15-ounce container ricotta
-5 ounces cream cheese
-1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided
-1 7-ounce package mozzarella cheese, divided
-1 1/2 cups chopped or pulled cooked chicken, cooled
-1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
-Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil add the pasta shells and cook for approximately 9 minutes (or as long as directed on the package) until al dente. Drain and rinse under cold water being careful not to break the shells. Set aside.
Heat two tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauce, stirring until the onion is translucent. Add the chopped garlic and cook for one minute. Then add the banana peppers, tomatoes, sea salt, Tuscan-style seasoning and bay leaf. Bring mixture to a boil and reduce heat to medium low to simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf and slowly stir in the whipping cream. If desired, use an immersion or standard blender to create a smooth sauce. Set aside.
Coat a skillet with the remaining olive oil and place over medium-high heat. Cook just until crisp and lightly browned. Remove from the heat and place on a plate lined with a paper towel to allow the pancetta to drain and cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, using a stand or handheld electric mixer, beat together the ricotta cheese and cream cheese together until well combined. (If you don’t have an electric mixer it can take a little elbow grease to beat these two cheese together. Just make sure both are room temperature to make your work easier.) Stir in half of the Parmesan cheese and half of the mozzarella cheese along with the chicken, basil and once cool, the pancetta, until well combined. Add black pepper and salt to the mixture to taste.
To assemble your stuffed shells, begin by ladling 1/3 of the sauce mixture into the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish, spreading the sauce out so it evenly covers the bottom of the pan. Then fill each of the shells with the cheese mixture and evenly distribute the filled shells in the pan. Pour the remaining sauce evenly over the shells. Sprinkle remaining cheese over the top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese on top is lightly golden.