In Hasty Gourmet, The Takeout writers offer reliable recipes that are dinner-party worthy with only a handful of ingredients and a minimum of effort.
My mother’s maiden name was Melfi, the same as Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi, who creator David Chase said he named after his own grandmother. Due to this admittedly tenuous connection, I always thought that my family was somehow distantly related to the Sopranos. But actually, that’s about as far as our Italian heritage went. With only one sibling, I felt like an orphan in my South Side Catholic Irish/Italian Chicago neighborhood, as most of my classmates had five or six. My Catholic grade school celebrated St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, of course, but for the Italians, the nuns also pulled out the stops for St. Joseph’s Day on March 19.
But as with most Italian-related families, our main tie to the culture was through food. I might have been in college before I realized that most families didn’t have a turkey and lasagna at Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother, god bless her, eventually tired of wrestling with sheets of lasagna noodles and switched her signature dish to stuffed pasta shells. She even took the meat out of it, focusing on a creamy spinach and ricotta mixture with two extra cheeses. It was my favorite, the one I would request on my birthday and weekends home from school.
So when I finally got my own apartment in my twenties and wanted to throw my own dinner parties, that’s the dish I would make. Mom sent me the recipe and I dutifully recreated it so often that my friends who came for dinner probably doubted I could make anything else. But eventually I perfected it, so much so that I inherited making it for holiday dinners; my mother said that my version surpassed hers, which is the greatest cooking compliment I will ever receive. Mainly I just think my dashes of nutmeg were bigger than her dashes.
Everybody has those dishes they grew up with that they pine for, and this is mine. It’s not really gourmet or fancy: I tried to make it once with fresh spinach and it turned out terrible; I have to make it with the frozen, boxed kind, which I never use for anything else. If I don’t have any fresh spaghetti sauce around, Prego will do just fine, thanks. It’s slightly labor intensive, sure. But it’s still perfect for dinner parties, as you can make it in advance and then pull it out and wow everybody. My tasters at work seemed to love it almost as much as I did, and it remains my ultimate comfort food. For a massive dose of nostalgia, masquerading as a delicious dinner, this is my go-to.
Melfi Stuffed Shells
- Box of large pasta shells
- A jar of spaghetti sauce
- 32 oz. container whole-milk ricotta
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella (and another cup for topping at the end)
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan
- few dashes nutmeg
- 2 tsp. dried oregano
- 2 tsp. dried basil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 box frozen spinach, cooked and drained
Cook pasta shells to al dente, following package instructions. Rinse immediately with cold water and let cool.
Mix cheeses, egg, and spices for filling and taste for seasoning correction. Add spinach and mix thoroughly.
Pour spaghetti sauce over the bottom of a rectangular casserole dish. Use teaspoon to fill the shells with cheese filling, lining them up in rows in the dish. When casserole is completely full, add some more sauce if you like, and top with another cup of mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle extra basil, oregano, and parmesan on top.
Cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until browned, about 45-50 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes about 30 shells total, can feed 8-10 people at 3-4 shells apiece.