Friday, September 10, 2010

Great Grandma's Stuffed Shells

This past weekend, my parents came to visit me and J in our new house.  Our new house has a beautiful kitchen, which we have been enjoying immensely.  In all of my foodie-dom, I have very recently taken up cooking.  I have been with J since I was 19 and he has always done the cooking...and since he is an amazing chef, I didn't feel the need.  I have always baked ridiculous creations, but now I have found that I can enjoy cooking just as much if not more than baking.  When you bake, you don't know something is a failure until it's complete...with cooking, you can taste and add and change as you go.  Upcoming blog posts will detail my adventures in learning to cook with/for J.

Now, I won't give you the exact recipe to this delicacy passed down through generations in my family (I am the fourth generation to have the pleasure of making this dish), but I will give you the basics and you can make it your own.  To be noted...I could not write an exact recipe even if I wanted.  There isn't a recipe, this dish is simply taught to you by your mother.  You teach your daughter, and so on.  Also, my 100% Italian, beautiful, sweet grandmother is notorious for leaving things out of recipes (she has her secrets) or describing something with absolutely no specifics (as in: "add cheese according to feel" with no details on what the "feel" is).

I have very fond memories of this dish from when I was a kid.  My mom has similar fond memories...basically whenever the whole family gets together and these stuffed shells are served, it turns into somewhat of an eating contest.  There is no prize, other than bragging rights.  All of the siblings/cousins try to outdo one another by eating just ONE MORE SHELL...which can go on indefinitely.  We didn't have such a contest when we ate these on Saturday night, but we did make about 75 stuffed shells (they freeze really well).

Great Grandma's Stuffed Shells

Stuffing - can and should be made in advance.  This will make your day of stuffing a ton of shells far less taxing.  You end up with quite a bit of stuffing...I can't say whether it will make you 36 shells or 75 like it made us.  It depends on the size of your shells.  Any leftover stuffing freezes beautifully or can be used in stuffed peppers...or anything else you think up.

3 lbs ground beef
3 stalks celery
5 cloves garlic
1 medium sweet onion
2 t. dried parsley
1 1/2 cups Italian bread crumbs
1/2 cup Italian cheese  (whatever you have lying around...Romano, Asiago, Parmesan, etc. or a mix)
2 eggs
Salt & pepper to taste

1. Brown beef with a little bit of olive oil until about 3/4 of the way done.  Break it up well and add lots of salt, pepper, and the dried parsley.
2. Finely chop (almost minced) garlic, celery, and onion.  You can do this in a food processor to make your life easier.
3. Add the minced garlic, celery, and onion to the beef and brown it the rest of the way.  Cover and simmer until veggies are soft..about 10 or 15 minutes.
4. Put the bread crumbs in a stand mixer.  When the beef is done, drain most of the liquid and add the beef to the breadcrumbs.  Mix with a flat beater or by hand.
5. Add the Italian cheese and mix lightly. 
6. Let the mixture cool down a bit and add the two eggs (slightly beaten) and lightly mix everything careful not to compress it.
Voila!  Stuffing.

Sauce - also can and should be made in advance.  My grandmother uses marinara sauce, my mom uses meat sauce, and I use a combination of the two.  Any delicious homemade pasta sauce tastes great on these.  The stuffing is the real star, so nothing too crazy for the sauce and go easy on the cheese on top.
I'm not including a sauce recipe because it's really a to each her own type deal.  Make your favorite marinara sauce, meat sauce, or somewhere in between.

To turn the stuffing into stuffed shells...
(use room temperature sauce)

You'll need a couple glass baking pans...we ended up using three.
1 or 2 packages of jumbo pasta shells (depending on size)

1. Cook shells for half time of what package directs (usually about 7 minutes)
2. Spread a small amount of sauce on the bottom of pan
3. Stuff each shell and place in sauced pan
4. Pour room temperature sauce all over the shells

Usually at this point we start drinking wine, if we haven't already.  The shells go in the refrigerator, covered with foil, and all of the extras can go in the freezer.  When it's time for dinner, take them out of the fridge and put them in the oven for about 45 minutes (still covered with foil) at 350.

After they are fully cooked, sprinkle a bit of cheese on top...mozzarella or any Italian cheese blend.  Put them back in the oven until the cheese melts. 

You can thank me later.

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