Friday, February 19, 2010

Stuffed Shells with Vodka-Tomato Cream Sauce

This was dinner tonight. Last week I checked out Cover & Bake (Best Recipe) by Cook's Illustrated from my local library. Each recipe was scrutinized by America's Test Kitchen. I really enjoyed reading the recipes, and even more, I enjoyed reading the preface to each recipe which gave the history of many traditional meals and described the trial and error process the test kitchen took to come up with the best possible product. I was excited about this meal because last night, I tried another recipe from Cover and Bake. While I was skeptical about the flavors and the methods, last night's Cincinnati Chili (which I'll be posting later this weekend) was phenomenal! I was an instant fan of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen. I have to say that tonight's stuffed shells... missed the mark. Bummer. Not horrible, completely edible....pretty good, even. Just not "out of this world". Disappointing, especially after the effort involved. I will make one excuse for this recipe. I copied the recipes that I wanted to use on my copy machine and then returned all of our books to the library today. When I began dinner tonight, I realized that the last bit of instructions were missing from the recipe I'd copied. Oops. Apparently the recipe had spanned over three pages and in my rush to get it copied and head out the door, I'd missed the last few steps. That said, these baked just fine. I found a similar, interchangeable recipe and followed those baking instructions. But it wasn't the texture that was disappointing here. These just needed more "Umph!", more flare, more intensity, more...something.

I'm still going to walk you through it...because, well, that's what I do.

First I cooked a 12 oz. box of jumbo shells according to the package directions. Do follow the package directions! Overcooked shells are difficult to stuff. Drain them and lay them out on waxed paper or foil so that they don't stick together while they cool. I did this, but I accidentally deleted the picture. Instead, here is a shot of a couple of the shells.

With the shells cooling, I set about the task of making the filling for the shells. The secret ingredient: fresh mint.

Mince the mint and combine with 2 cups ricotta, 1/2 cup mozzarella, a large egg, garlic, salt, and pepper. You're supposed to add peas too, but read on...

With the filling made, I decided to begin the vodka-tomato sauce because it needed to simmer for a bit while I stuffed the shells. Heat some olive oil in a skillet and add a couple of cloves of garlic. You want to heat until fragrant, but not browned. Watch this step closely. Burned garlic is NEVER a good thing.

Next, the recipe called for 2 cans of diced tomatoes, processed until smooth. I used my Cuisinart CSB-76 Smart Stick Hand Blender. Still loving this! No fuss and no mess!

As the name of this recipe implies, you need vodka. Am I alone in the fact that when I buy hard alcohol in the middle of the day with my children in tow that I feel obligated to explain to other shoppers that it's "just for a recipe" so that they don't judge me?

Here's how it went down today:

It was a low-key day in my house. A no make-up, ratty hoodie, catch-up-on-the-laundry, knock items off of the to-do list kind of day. I was short on time when I went to the store for my big shopping trip earlier this week. I missed a few items before I had to rush off to the Pre-K pick up. So today, I loaded the kiddos into the car and drove to the corner store to toss those last few items into the cart. I needed vodka for this recipe. We were outta bananas. You get the picture. We arrived at the store too close to my toddler's naptime. The kids were nuts! Screaming in the cart(garnering plenty of stares and raised eyebrows from passersby) and then when I took em' out, terrorizing the aisles. And that's how I found my forlorn self standing before the small liquor selection, contemplating cheap vodka, in a coat (with a ripped sleeve...stuffing coming out... that I'd torn on the garage door as I exited the house) with my kids acting like complete maniacs. Too bad the aisle wasn't empty. I know how this must've looked. As a couple of ladies sized me up, a clerk walked by. "Excuse me," I got her attention. "This says diluted." Apparently in this state, if it's not a liquor store, they can't sell the hard stuff. "No problem," I assured the clerk, "It's just FOR A RECIPE. Should be fine." To which one of the shoppers audibly said, "Uh-huh. Sure." And another lady flat out addressed me, "Are you sure, honey? Depending on how the rest of this day goes, you might need a screwdriver." Nice. The vodka was diluted. I know this because when I opened it and took a whiff, it didn't trigger my gag reflex the way regular hard alcohol tends to do. Seriously, I don't touch the stuff. I've been there, done my college days. Now the thought of a shot or vodka anything makes me cringe. Also, for proof, (ha ha proof) I poured a little on my finger and tasted it. The burn was minimal. Oh well, this is what I ended up with.

Add the pureed tomatoes, vodka, red pepper flakes, sugar, and cream (I used half and half) to the skillet. It needs to simmer for 10-12 minutes for the flavors to meld and the sauce to thicken.

While the sauce simmered, I stuffed those shells.

The recipe called for peas, so after filling over half of the shells (my husband and daughters REALLY do not care for peas) I stirred some peas into the filling.

You're supposed to place the shells seam side down in a 9 X 13 baking dish. The last time I made stuffed shells, I placed them seam side up. I was a little concerned that the filling would run out. It didn't.

Pour on the sauce, then cover with foil and bake. I went with 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, I pulled the shells from the oven and sprinkled with a little more mozzarella (not in the recipe, but a good move if you ask me) and parmesan.

Then back into the oven for another 10 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

Serve topped with fresh, chopped basil.

Here's a cross-sectional view...

Stuffed Shells with Vodka-Tomato Cream Sauce from Cook's Illustrated Cover and Bake re-typed (from partially copied recipe) and slightly adapted by me

- One 1 lb. box of jumbo pasta shells


- One 16 oz. container of ricotta (whole or skim or fat free, whatever your choice)
- 1/2 shredded mozzerella cheese (separated)
- 4 tbsp minced garlic (separated)
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 clove garlic, minced to a paste or pressed
- 3/4 t. salt
- ground black pepper


- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, pureed
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 cup vodka (either the cheap stuff or expensive, it doesn’t effect the taste)
- 1 cup half and half
- salt and pepper to taste


1/2 cup mozzarella
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain. Separate each shell (you should have about 30). Cool on waxed paper or foil.

For Filling: In a large bowl mix together ricotta, mozzerella, peas, egg, garlic, and mint. Spray a 9×13 casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray. Fill each pasta shell with about one tbsp of mixture, and place seam-side down into the dish. Cover filled pasta shells with damp paper towels while making the sauce.

For Sauce: In a large skillet or heavy saucepan, sautee garlic in olive oil. Add pureed tomatoes, vodka, red pepper flakes, sugar, and heavy cream. Stir together, and add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 10-12 minutes until flavors have blended and sauce has thickened. Pour sauce over pasta shells and ensure each shell is covered completely.

To Bake: At this point you can refrigerate the dish for up to one day (covered in plastic wrap), if you are making it ahead of time. Simply allow it to sit at room temperature for one hour before putting it in the oven. To cook, cover with foil and bake in a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, remove foil, cover with parmesan and additional mozzerella, and return to oven for 5 or 10 more minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbly.

Top with basil and serve.


*I only used a little over one tablespoon of mint. I was concerned that more would be out of my family's "comfort zone" when it came to savory Italian-syle comfort food. As a result, the flavor of the mint was subtle and complementary, yet not over-whelming. I think that more mint might have been off-putting.

* This was a little on the bland side. If I make it again I'm thinking more garlic, more red pepper flakes, more salt and pepper, and (provided it isn't a Friday during Lent) some Italian sausage.

To print or download this recipe click here!


Julie said...

Wow, they look and sound great. I'm sure just a little tweaking and they'll be awesome :)

Mary | Deep South Dish said...

OMG you are killing me lately! Are you sure you didn't work the comedy circuits in another life? Okay, first. If the kids were in that kind of mood, I think a frozen pizza would have come out of that freezer and nobody would have went anywhere! But then you wouldn't have such a funny story to share. You're lucky though - you can't buy even diluted liquor in a Mississippi market - you have no choice but to go to a liquor store. I love the tattered coat and then the "you might need a screwdriver later" OMG hilarious!!

As far as the recipe you have me so curious that now I want to go track the WHOLE thing down and give it a try myself!! I don't cook with liquor though at all (The Cajun is a non drinker, card carrying member and all) so I don't even cook with it, so it'd have to be solely for me. :)

Kim said...

LOL - I've had the same no-make up, sweatpant wearing days where the kids act up and you are thoroughly embarrassed. I'm convinced that we have all been there:D
I love reading the cooks illustrated, and this one looks delicious.

Chicago Mom said...

Wow, those look really good - too bad they were bland.
I love ATK and CC, I try to catch their TV shows on Saturdays on PBS.

Katy ~ said...

I don't have kids and have had days like that. To my knowledge we don't have diluted liquor here, and to use vodka in a recipe, I'd use the stuff that I have in my liquor cabinet, as I think we'd need to go full throttle on a vodka sauce such as this. That may have been what was missing. When I go to a liquor store, I do the same thing...this is for a recipe....and I get the same looks. Of course, I could tell them that the bottle of cognac in my self has been there for 7 gets used in my french onion soup and my tomato soup...that's it...Thanks for a fun post. May have to try vodka sauce; be another way to use that vodka that's been sitting there since???

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