Comfort food is the heart of my home cooked meals these days. Whether it’s Chicken and Dumplings or Turkey Meatloaf, comfort food makes up the majority of what my family eats on a nightly basis. Probably because by the end of a day of wrangling three kids, I want a little comfort anyway I can get it. But comfort food does not need to be unhealthy food.
When I moved to New England for college two decades ago, I was immediately immersed in a crash course of Italian American food. Stuffed shells, Manicotti, Ricotta in pretty much anything was what I took away from the local restaurants and even the dining halls. It wasn’t until I moved to Boston’s North End that I really started to learn the differences between Italian-American fast food and what it meant to truly identify yourself as an Italian and an American and what role food played in that identification. I learned this through friends who knew a lot about food who were also Italian Americans, by living in a predominately Italian neighborhood where I could walk around and still hear Italian spoken, and by trips to Italy where I learned the differences between Italian and American food.
Italian-American food is not a set-in-stone canon of recipes. Yes, Ricotta is in some of it, but not in all of it. (I also learned that not all Ricotta is grainy and tasteless.) The dishes are comfort food to many, but that does not mean that they cannot be lightened and improved.
This week’s recipe is an example of that. I have had stuffed shells a few times over the years. Sadly, most of the time the dish was very disappointing. The shells tend to be over stuffed with tasteless grainy Ricotta, and the pasta is usually overcooked and blown out, soggy and bloated with sauce. The sauce is usually the only vegetable matter on the plate.
This recipe is not that dish. These shells are filled with a homemade Italian sausage which you can make from any ground meat you wish; I’m a fan of lean ground turkey. You then mix the sausage with kale and cheese and fill the shells with a moderate amount of the filling. The shells are easily frozen and can be pulled out and topped with a fresh, easy to make sauce before baking. I don’t put any cheese on top of the sauce when baking, as it seems pointless since the shells are full of it. When serving I top each portion with a small amount of freshly grated Parmesan and that’s it.
I highly recommend making your own sausage. The idea that sausage is hard to make is a misconception. It couldn’t be easier and the flavor is superior; especially for the lower fat meats like ground chicken or turkey. The vinegar in the sausage recipe really helps bring the flavor to life, and you can make it as spicy as your family wants. Since Italian sausage is not smoked or cured, it’s easy to make, and it does not need to be stuffed into a casing if your using it as a filling or topping.
You certainly don’t need to be Italian-American or Italian or even American to enjoy this dish. It’s comfort food any way you dish it. It tastes good, it makes you feel good and it will make you smile. Enjoy!
Italian Sausage and Kale Stuffed Shells
Quality Ricotta is very important to the success of this recipe. I love Naragansett Creamery’s Ricotta; it’s insanely smooth and very flavorful. If you live outside the region find a local cheese producer that makes it. Good Ricotta is an entirely different product than most of the stuff in the grocery stores.
1 package large shells, about 40
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound Italian sausage (see recipe below)
1/2 bunch kale, rinsed and dried
1 cup whole milk ricotta (8 oz)
1 cup mozzarella, shredded (4 oz)
2 tablespoons Parmesan, finely grated (1 1/2 oz)
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons basil, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes (Eden Organic does not contain BPA)
1 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon garlic, minced (about five cloves)
1 teaspoon salt
8 large basil leaves, torn into small pieces
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the shells according to the directions until al dente, removing 1-2 minutes before the recommended cooking time.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the onion and saute until soft but not yet brown, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook until the garlic is very fragrant, about a minute. Add the sausage.
Cook the sausage breaking it into smaller pieces until it is cooked completely through and the pieces are no bigger than a 1/2 inch. Add the chopped kale and cook until the kale is wilted and has released most of its liquid, about another 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely down to room temperature.
While the sausage and kale mixture is cooling combine ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, parsley, basil, egg, salt and pepper in a large bowl.
Once the sausage and kale have cooled add it to the mixture and thoroughly combine.
Using a tablespoon or 1/2 ounce scoop, fill each shell with a rounded tablespoon of filling.
Place seem down in an oiled baking dish or on a baking sheet for freezing.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Make the sauce by combining the tomatoes, chicken broth, olive oil, crushed red pepper, garlic, salt and basil in a large bowl.
Line the shells up in a large baking dish and cover with the sauce. If you are baking off only a small portion of the shells, allow 1/2 cup of sauce for each five shells. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes, 30 if frozen. Remove the foil and check to make sure sauce is bubbling and all the shells are hot cooked thoroughly. Serve with a light grating of Parmesan.
1 pound ground turkey, chicken or pork
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Combine the red pepper flakes and the fennel in a small pan and toast, shaking constantly until lightly toasted, about 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Combine the ground meat, garlic, sugar, salt, black pepper, fennel and red pepper mixture and vinegar together.
Use in any recipe that calls for Italian sausage with the casing removed.