Spanakopita Stuffed Shells

published Mar 19, 2020
Spanakopita Stuffed Shells

A brightened-up version of the classic comfort food, featuring the flavors of Greek spanakopita: spinach, feta cheese, fresh dill, and lots of lemon.

Serves4 to 6

Prep30 minutes to 40 minutes

Cook35 minutes

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Credit: Shelly Westerhausen

Back in January, when I decided to create a new stuffed shells recipe for Tonight We Veg (my monthly vegetarian column), I planned to angle it around the arrival of spring produce. The recipe was scheduled to run in late March, when, I figured, the weather would be warming, fresh peas, spinach, and tender herbs would all be coming into season, and we’d all be hankering for lighter meals. My mind went to a spanakopita flavor profile — cheesy and comforting, as all stuffed shells should be, yet packed with nutrient-dense greens, too.

What I couldn’t have predicted is where we are now, self-quarantining and social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic. Did a recipe celebrating spring still make sense, when so many of us are stuck inside, the farmer’s markets closed? To answer this, I did the one thing that’s helped calm me these past few days — I cooked. I cooked this recipe again, and this time, I came away with an entirely different perspective.

Credit: Shelly Westerhausen

These Stuffed Shells are Veggie-Packed Comfort Food, Which Is Exactly What I Need Right Now

This dish isn’t just good when made with peas from your local farmer. It’s good because it satisfies what so many of us are craving right now — familiarity and comfort, but also a healthy dose of vegetables. I enjoyed this dish even more than I did the first time, because it fulfilled my needs in a way I couldn’t have anticipated back in January.

If you, like me, feel most nourished right now when eating familiar, cozy foods with a healthful spin, I encourage you to give these stuffed shells a try. It will certainly satisfy all your desires for cheese (it’s made with three different types!), but it’s brightened up with the flavors of Greek spanakopita — fresh dill, lots of lemon, tangy feta cheese, and as much baby spinach as I could possibly pack into it. In lieu of the classic tomato sauce or a rich béchamel sauce, I opted for just a drizzle of heavy cream halfway through baking. This keeps the shells from drying out while letting the flavors of the filling shine through.

How to Make This Dish with What You Have

I’ve included instructions for using frozen peas or spinach, and honestly, if you don’t have jumbo shells in your pantry, I bet this would work with any pasta shape. Simply cook 12 ounces dried pasta until al dente, toss it with the filling, and bake as directed. Any type of onion or shallot can replace the scallions, you can use a garlic substitute in place of fresh garlic, and whatever herb is in your fridge can be used in place of dill. You can also assemble the entire thing in advance, cover and refrigerate it, then pop it in the oven when you’re ready to enjoy.

No matter how you make it, I hope it comforts you as much as it did me — and that it brings a bit of spring into your kitchen.

Spanakopita Stuffed Shells

A brightened-up version of the classic comfort food, featuring the flavors of Greek spanakopita: spinach, feta cheese, fresh dill, and lots of lemon.

Prep time 30 minutes to 40 minutes

Cook time 35 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 6 ounces

    jumbo pasta shells (about 22)

  • 5 tablespoons

    olive oil, divided

  • 4

    medium scallions

  • 4 cloves

    garlic

  • 1/4 cup

    chopped fresh dill

  • 1

    large lemon

  • 1 cup

    shelled fresh or frozen English peas (do not thaw)

  • 5 ounces

    baby spinach (about 5 cups), or 1/2 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt, divided, plus more for cooking the pasta

  • 8 ounces

    whole milk ricotta cheese (1 cup)

  • 4 ounces

    feta cheese (1 cup crumbled)

  • 2 ounces

    Parmesan cheese (about 1 cup freshly grated or 1/2 cup store-bought)

  • 1

    large egg

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes, plus more for garnish

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 cup

    heavy cream

  • 2 tablespoons

    pine nuts (optional)

Instructions

  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F.

  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 6 ounces jumbo shells (about 22) and cook until al dente, 9 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, trim and thinly slice 4 scallions, keeping the dark green parts separate from the whites. Finely chop 4 garlic cloves. Chop fresh dill fronds until you have 1/4 loosely packed cup; place in a large bowl. Finely grate the zest of 1 large lemon and add 1 tablespoon zest to the bowl (reserve any remaining zest for garnish). Cut the lemon in half and squeeze 2 tablespoons juice into the bowl. Stir to combine.

  3. When the pasta is ready, drain and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Toss to coat and set aside. If using frozen spinach, place 5 ounces in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 1-minute bursts until defrosted. When cool enough to handle, squeeze all the excess moisture from the spinach.

  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch cast iron or other oven-safe skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the scallion whites and cook until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and 1 cup peas. Add 5 ounces baby spinach (about 5 cups) a few handfuls at a time, until wilted, 4 to 5 minutes. If using frozen spinach, add and cook until warmed through. Remove from heat and season with 1/4 teaspoon of the kosher salt.

  5. Add 1 cup ricotta, 1 cup feta (crumbling it as you add it), 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, 1 large egg, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, the remaining 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, and several grinds black pepper to the bowl with the dill. Stir to combine. Add the cooked vegetables and stir to combine.

  6. Wipe out the skillet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, swirling the pan to coat. Stuff each shell with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture and place filling-side up in the skillet. Cover the skillet with aluminum foil.

  7. Bake until the filling is warmed through, about 15 minutes. Uncover and pour 1/2 cup heavy cream over the shells. Continue baking uncovered until the shells are cooked through and the cream is bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes more. Meanwhile, make the topping if desired.

  8. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add 2 tablespoons pine nuts and a pinch each salt and red pepper flakes. Cook until the pine nuts are lightly golden-brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.

  9. When the pasta is ready, top with reserved scallion greens, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes. Spoon the pine nuts and their oil over top. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to 4 days.

Whether you eat plant-based full-time or want to go meat-free once a week, Tonight We Veg will bring you the feel-good vegetarian meals you crave. Once a month, in addition to our existing lineup of great veggie recipes, we’ll share easy weeknight recipes that prove how diverse produce-forward food can be, each packed with smart tips we’ve picked up over the years. Cook along with us, and share your creations using #tonightweveg.