Even a savvy hostess is sometimes left in a tizzy when the strident tone of an unexpected call cuts through her thoughts on a chaotic day. Old friends are in town and have just invited themselves to dinner, leaving her racking her brains for quick menu ideas. Seeking inspiration, she surveys her refrigerator shelves, rummaging through the vegetable bin and peeking behind the milk jug. She is trying to achieve a difficult balance, a menu that will befit the occasion and would yet be feasible with what she has on hand. Her mind works almost feverishly, listing out her choices on a notepad, ticking the ingredients for each off the checklist. She won’t have the luxury of time like certain protagonists in Murakami’s stories, to fuss over the subtleties of spaghetti or hum to the Rossinis or Abbados. She has to make this roll like quicksilver.
A smooth, roasted red pepper and tomato soup would be good to start with, perhaps. Will her husband be home in time to grill the chicken outdoors? Is it going to take too long to stuff and bake the pasta shells she discovered in the pantry? A salad with mixed baby greens is a safe bet too, the leaves conveniently triple-washed, sitting snug in their cozy bag. And who doesn’t love ice cream for dessert? Although she needs to check if there’s enough chocolate sauce to pass around. Satisfied with her selections, she takes a deep breath and bustles around the kitchen, marinating the chicken and ferreting out her trusty Palak-Paneer Stuffed Pasta Shells recipe that she now shares with you.
Palak-Paneer Stuffed Pasta Shells
16-20 Jumbo pasta shells from a 1 pound package
1½ Cups of your favorite Marinara Sauce, homemade or store-bought
1 Cup shredded cheese for topping – mozzarella, cheddar or an Italian blend
For stuffing the shells –
- ½ Pound frozen chopped spinach, defrosted, or 1 bunch fresh leaves, blanched and cut
- 1½ Cups finely crumbled Paneer
- 1 Cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- ¼ Cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 Tablespoons cream cheese, or 1 egg yolk, to bind the filling
- 1 clove garlic, smashed to a paste
- ½ Teaspoon lemon zest, optional
- A generous pinch each of powdered nutmeg and cloves
- ¼ Teaspoon powdered cinnamon
- ½ Teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ Teaspoon black pepper
- ½ Teaspoon salt, or to taste
Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Cook the pasta shells to nearly al dente, cutting down by a minute or so from the recommended time on the package, since they will continue to cook once in the oven. Drain the shells in a colander and leave them to cool down just enough to handle. Prepare a sturdy baking dish by greasing its bottom and sides with butter, and pour in half a cup of the marinara sauce as a bed for the pasta.
Place the spinach in a clean dishcloth and wring it out a few times to remove as much water as possible. Fluff up the spinach with a fork, then mix with the other stuffing ingredients in a large bowl to a rich, gooey consistency. Place 1-2 tablespoons of the filling in each shell and arrange in neat rows in the baking dish. Any excess filling can be saved to use in delicious grilled sandwiches later.
Pour the remaining sauce over the shells and cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until you see the sauce bubbling merrily. Remove the foil, sprinkle the cheese and return the pan to the oven to melt it. You could also broil the top to brown the cheese, watching closely to avoid scoring a blackened end on your efforts. Pull on your paisley-print, cushioned oven mitts and set out the hearty dish on a hardy trivet. Your Palak-Paneer Stuffed Pasta Shells are ready to roll, for those unexpected guests or the regular Janes and Joes at the dinner table. As for our savvy hostess, she tosses her hair back and breezes through the salad prep, leaving the chicken to be grilled later by her husband. She possibly even has the time to now enjoy some La Gazza Ladra while she pops open her favorite Pinot Grigio to fill in the glasses staring emptily at her..
Our Shells are being shared with –