During deer season we stay in a shack that has all the comforts of home except running water. So I try to make a lot of our meals in advance, in disposable foil pans, because dishes without running water aren’t my idea of a good time. One of my Mom’s favorite meals that I typically bring to deer camp is stuffed shells. She likes them so much that one year when she wasn’t going to stay the night she took her portion home to eat there.
They started out as manicotti but then I realized I could put the same stuffing into shells and they were so much easier to stuff. The filling is a combination of a meat filling and a cheese filling. I used to make meat only for my parents who are lactose intolerant and cheese for my husband and I, but then I discovered lactose free cottage cheese, so now I combine both fillings together. There’s still some shredded cheese so I go a little heavier on the meat on my parents pan but they can have some cheese now. It really makes this a three-in-one recipe because you can make meat, cheese, or meat & cheese.
Here’s what you need:
You’re also going to need some of my homemade marinara sauce, or your favorite jarred spaghetti sauce.
Cook a box of large shells according to package directions.
To prep the meat mixture, we’re going to cook an equal amount of ground beef and breakfast sausage. I’m not a huge fan of Italian sausage and really like the flavor of little sizzlers. We’ve also had good success with this using venison sausage. Brown the beef and sausage together and break into small pieces as you brown it.
Remove the meat from a pan and put it in a large bowl. If there is a lot of excess grease you can drain it but leave a tablespoon or so in the pan. Add a finely minced clove of garlic and a minced onion to the pan and cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 3-5 minutes.
Add the onions to the meat mixture.
Add some Italian style bread crumbs, parsley and oregano. Mix together. Set the meat mixture aside as you prep the cheese mixture.
Thaw the frozen spinach in the microwave (most packages have directions). Put the spinach into paper towels or a kitchen towel and squeeze as much water out as you can.
In a large bowl add cottage cheese (I’ve used ricotta as well, but they don’t make lactose free ricotta yet so when I make it for my parents I use cottage cheese), finely shredded mozzarella, Parmesan cheese and an Italian herb blend. I like to mix the cheese and herbs together before I add the spinach because it incorporates better for me. Once the cheese is mixed together, stir in the spinach. I try to fluff and separate the spinach when I add it to the bowl because after you’ve squeezed the water out it will be a pretty solid clump.
Next, I arrange all my ingredients on the counter so it’s easy to start stuffing. I’m showing the meat and cheese mixture separately here, but remember you can mix the cheese and meat as well, which is what I ended up doing (and forgetting to take a picture of).
Place a thin layer of marinara sauce in the bottom of the pan. I use the deep square foil pans which I believe are about 9×9. I can fit 12 shells in the pan, without too much crowding.
Stuff each shell with about two tablespoons of filling mixture. Fill it full without cramming the filling in there.
Cover the mixture with marinara sauce. There is really no right answer of how much to use. You can just cover the shells or you can smother them – if you smother them you have extra sauce for dipping garlic bread in when you serve the shells.
Sprinkle the stuffed shells with mozzarella cheese.
You can bake them right away in a 375 degree oven for about 25-30 minutes until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is brown. Or you can freeze the shells, thaw and bake later. If you bake later because the shells will likely have been defrosting in the fridge and not room temp, increase the baking time to 35-45 minutes. I like to start it covered for the first 25 minutes so the cheese doesn’t brown too quickly.
I can’t have pasta with red sauce without serving it with garlic bread or garlic cheese bread.
This is a great meal to make extra pans of. It hardly takes any more work and then you can have dinner tonight and dinner for another night or two.
- 24 large shells, approximately
- ½ lb ground beef
- ½ lb bulk pork sausage
- ½ c onion, minced
- 1 t garlic, minced
- ¼ c Italian bread crumbs
- 1 T parsley
- 1 t oregano
- 16 oz cottage cheese
- 2 c finely shredded mozzarella or Italian blend cheese
- ¼ c Parmesan cheese
- 1 t Italian seasoning
- 1 10 oz pkg chopped spinach
- 6 c marinara sauce
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Cook shells according to package directions.
- in a large skillet brown sausage and ground beef, breaking into small pieces as you brown. Place browned meat in a large bowl. Drain all but 1 T grease from the pan.
- Add onion and garlic to same pan and cook over medium heat until translucent but not browned. Add to same bowl as the meat.
- Mix meat and onion with bread crumbs, parsley, and oregano.
- Make the cheese mixture by mixing the cottage cheese, shredded cheese (all but a ½ cup), Parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning. Mix in spinach.
- Spread a small amount of marinara in the bottom of two 9x9 inch pans.
- Fill each shell with about 2 T of filling. Place 12 filled shells in each pan.
- Cover shells with remaining marinara.
- Sprinkle on reserved shredded cheese.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until sauce is bubbly and the cheese if melted and lightly browned. If frozen, thaw and then bake for 35-45 minutes, cover for the first 25 min.