We've been fans of cheese-stuffed pasta shells our whole lives. It's one of the first baked casserole dishes we can remember eating - and liking! - and it remains a favorite today. Don't let the fact that this is a "lighter" version turn you off. It's still cheesy and delicious, but now it's just a little better for us!
This recipe employs one of our favorite ways to lighten up a recipe: simply adding more vegetables. Be sure to cook these onions and mushrooms until they're completely soft and golden. The deeply savory flavors of the vegetables really enrich the final dish.
Cottage cheese has a rich flavor and creamy texture that makes it a surprisingly good stand-in for ricotta. We drain the extra liquid to give us a more compact filling and add a handful of mozzarella cheese for...well...cheese! The parmesan sprinkled on top also gives a burst of cheesy flavor in every bite.
12-ounce box jumbo pasta shells
2 cups (16 ounces) cottage cheese, whole or 2%
1 onion, diced small
10 ounces mushrooms, diced small
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon oregano
10 ounces baby spinach
3/4 cup (about 6 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
32-ounce can crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, or your favorite jarred tomato sauce
1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) finely shredded Parmesan cheese
Pre-heat the oven to 375°.
Boil a large pot of water, add a tablespoon of salt, and cook the pasta shells until barely al dente. You want them a little under-cooked for this dish because they will absorb more liquid in the oven. Set the shells aside to cool.
Set a strainer over a bowl. Pour the cottage cheese into the strainer and allow it to drain for at least 15 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and a healthy pinch of salt, and cook until translucent and beginning to brown, 5-7 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms have released their liquid and turned golden, 5-7 minutes. Stir in the garlic, oregano, nutmeg, and another good pinch of salt. Cook until fragrant, 30 seconds.
Turn the heat down to medium. Add as much of the spinach as will fit in the pan and cover with a lid. After a minute or two, uncover and stir the spinach. As it wilts and creates more space, add the remaining spinach to the pan. Continue stirring and steaming until all the spinach is wilted. Uncover the pan and stir the spinach for a few minutes to let the residual liquid evaporate. Remove from heat.
Combine the drained cottage cheese, the cooked vegetables, and the mozzarella in a large bowl. Taste a spoonful and add more salt and pepper if desired.
Pour half of the can of tomatoes into the bottom of a 9x13 casserole or other baking dish. Scoop a healthy spoonful (2-3 tablespoons) of the filling into each shell and arrange them side-by-side in the baking dish. Pour the remaining sauce over the top and cover tightly with foil.
Bake for 30 minutes covered and 10-15 minutes uncovered. The tomato sauce should be bubbling around the edges and look thickened in the pan. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top of the shells in the last few minutes of cooking. Allow the casserole to sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Leftovers will keep refrigerated for up to a week.
Related: Five Ways to Eat Spinach
(Images: Emma Christensen)