I love this recipe. It’s a hearty, tasty, pretty-to-look at dish that, while a bit demanding time-wise, you can make in advance and refrigerate until baking (if you do, be sure to remove the dish from the fridge and let warm to room temp prior to baking).
300 grams of super large pasta shells, about 26-28 pieces
250 grams (1 cup, packed) spinach, cooked and chopped (about 1 pound fresh spinach)
250 grams (1 cup) grated Parmesan cheese
250 grams (1 cup) chunky tomato puree (5 or 6 large tomatoes)
2 garlic cloves
3 Tbls olive oil
salt & pepper
400 grams (about 1 & ½ cups) béchamel:
50 grams (4 level Tbls) butter
50 grams (½ cup) flour
250 ml (1 cup) whole milk
pinch of salt
½ tsp ground nutmeg
Start with the spinach. To obtain a cup of cooked spinach you’ll need a large amount, about 1 pound. Bring a big pot of water to boil. Add the spinach and cook for about 3 minutes. Strain very well, pressing the water out through the strainer with a ladle. Transfer the cooked spinach onto a chopping block. Let cool for a few minutes, and then chop. You should end up with a mound of spinach about the size of a large orange. Again press out any excess liquid. Set the spinach aside.
Boil the pasta shells for 3 minutes. Meanwhile, set up a large bowl of very cold water nearby. Strain them with a hand-held scoop strainer rather then dumping them into the colander. As you scoop out the shells, gently shake off excess hot water and place them in the cold water. When all the shells have been cooled, strain again and lay them out on a tea towel.
Score and boil the tomatoes for 5 minutes. Drain, let cool, peel and deseed. Roughly chop the fruit into a pulp and place in a bowl.
Peel the garlic cloves. Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Add the garlic and swirl around until the oil is fragrant. Add the spinach and stir into the oil. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well, turn off the heat and leave in the pan. Remove the cooked garlic cloves.
Now the béchamel. Melt the butter in a medium non-stick saucepan on low heat. And the flour and blend with a wooden or silicon spoon until a paste-like roux is formed. Add the milk and keep stirring on low-to-medium heat until the liquid thickens (it will also bulk up in volume). Add a pinch of salt and about ½ teaspoon of ground nutmeg and stir very well. Turn off the heat. Add ¾ of the béchamel to the pan with the spinach. Turn the heat back on low. Now add about half of the tomato pulp and a little more than half of the Parmesan and blend all thoroughly. Taste the mixture and correct for salt.
Heat the oven to 190° C / 375° F. Butter the inside of a large baking dish, a 9″x9″ or 9″x11″ will do. Using a soup spoon, stuff each shell with a scoop of the spinach mixture and place in the dish. Proceed until the bottom of the dish is covered, adjusting the shells as needed so they are snugly in. Try to keep most of them ‘face up’ but don’t worry if it gets messy. If you still have shells when you’ve covered the bottom of the dish, start a second layer. Now carefully spoon in some of the remaining béchamel in the ‘gaps’ between shells. Spread the remaining tomato sauce over the shells and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese. Bake for 15 minutes or until the top is golden and slightly crunchy.