A few weeks ago someone I follow on Twitter posted a photo of stuffed shells, and immediately that voice in my head said, Hot damn! I love stuffed shells! I should make those again! But then I tried to remember the last time I had them, and I couldn’t. Then I realized that I—an Italian-American gal from Brooklyn’s mafia country who talks with her hands and says things like “gabagool” without a trace of irony—have never actually made stuffed shells. I always figured they were one of those things that just materialized every time someone was celebrating their cousin Joey’s christening or their cousin Paulie’s first communion.
My entire life, I believed that stuffed shells were an “occasion” pasta, one with a purpose attached. Now that I’m a grown woman and a lapsed Catholic, stuffed shells have only one purpose: to fill my life with joy until the day I am, at long last, sent straight to hell for giving Sister Lucille “sass” in the fourth grade. A marked woman should be allowed to eat all the stuffed shells she damn well pleases, shouldn’t she? And she should be able to stuff those shells however she damn well pleases, too. Shells stuffed with cheese and baked in sauce are meant for good Catholic girls. Meanwhile, shells stuffed with sauce and baked in cheese are meant for bad little girls who “ask too many questions.” Pasta is my religion, and these stuffed shells are my antipope.
Use the biggest baking dish you own for this. There will be still be more shells than can fit into that baking dish, and those are yours to eat while you’re waiting for your stuffed shells to come out of the oven. You will never say to yourself, “Oh no! I made too many stuffed shells!” because that, as a concept, is impossible. Even if you’re only one person, you can easily eat these stuffed shells over the course of two days.
For the Bolognese sauce
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 1 lb. ground pork
- 2 medium onions, diced small
- 2 medium carrots, diced small
- 8 cloves garlic, minced (I don’t believe in restraint; follow your heart here)
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup beef or chicken stock
- 1 (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes
- Ample amounts of olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 1 box jumbo shells
For the Pecorino sauce
- 6 Tbsp. butter
- 3 large cloves garlic, Microplaned
- 1/3 cup flour
- 3 cups whole milk
- 2/3 cup shredded Pecorino Romano cheese, plus additional for sprinkling
Heat a large deep saute pan over high heat. Add a bit of olive oil, swirl around the pan, then add the ground beef and pork and begin breaking it up a bit with a wooden spoon. Let it sear for a minute or so, then give it a stir and break it up a bit more. Keep doing this until the meat is brown—not tan, brown. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Turn the heat down to medium, then add a nice big slick of olive oil. Add the onions and carrots with a hefty pinch of salt; cook until barely soft, then add the garlic. When the garlic becomes fragrant, add the tomato paste and cook while stirring for about 2 minutes, until it begins smelling vaguely sweet like caramel. Stir in milk, stock, browned meat, and tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid has reduced and the sauce is quite thick, about one hour. Taste for seasoning, add salt as you see fit, then set aside.
Once the sauce is done, bring a big pot of salted water to a boil, then cook the shells according to package directions. Drain them well, and do not rinse. Put on a plate and let them air dry for a bit.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and then make the cheese sauce.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, then add the Microplaned garlic and cook until golden. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or so until completely smooth. Whisk in the milk 1/2 cup at a time, bringing back to a simmer between each addition. When the sauce thickens, turn off the heat, then stir in the Pecorino. Pour enough of the sauce into a large baking dish to cover the bottom, then set aside.
Stuff each shell with a heaping tablespoon of the Bolognese sauce, then nestle into the baking dish; repeat until the dish is full. Pour the remaining Pecorino sauce over the shells, sprinkle with additional Pecorino, and bake for 25-30 minutes until bubbling. Allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.