About 2 years ago I slowly stopped eating meat. It was a gradual process, and not something I really did consciously. I did make a very considered decision to eat less meat originally. This was for a combination of reasons (all the usual suspects) – environmental, ethical and health related feelings. However over time, I just seemed to want less and less of it. I hardly ever miss meat and for now am really enjoying my pescatarian life. Perhaps I’ll eat it again one day, who knows. I’d love to go full vegetarian at some point, or even vegan (though I just don’t think I could never give up cheese so that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon).
All cafes and restaurants cater for vegetarians so I’m always covered when I eat out. Having seafood in my diet does expand the options significantly which is great too. This shift in my eating habits has really challenged me to become a better cook. I need to be more creative and have had to move away from some of my regular go-to recipes (goodbye meatballs and chicken soup).
This stuffed pasta recipe is a fantastic example of how a very simple vegetarian dish with a few tweaks can be so wonderful you forget meat ever existed. I guess it’s a take on a cheesy tomato pasta bake, just a little more fancy pants.
Sourcing the large shell pasta for this shouldn’t be hard – most supermarkets have a great range of pasta now, and if not, try a boutique / specialty store and you’re bound to come across them. I like to use really top quality organic pasta sauce in recipes like this. It’s an easy way to get additional flavour through the dish and you know that what you’re adding doesn’t contain anything nasty or unexpected like loads of sugar of preservatives as many standard supermarket sauces will.
If you want to go extra cheesy, grate mozzarella on top of the dish at the end with the parmesan before baking.
This stuffed ricotta and zucchini pasta bake was inspired by this recipe.
- 14 jumbo pasta shells
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 200 g mushrooms
- 1 zucchini
- 2 large handfuls of baby spinach
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley
- 3 garlic cloves
- 400 g tin of chopped tomatoes
- 500 g organic tomato pasta sauce
- 1 handful fresh basil
- 1.5 cups pasta water (reserved after cooking)
- Salt and pepper
- Grated parmesan
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When it's boiling, add the jumbo pasta shells and cook according to package instructions, less 1-2 minutes (the shells will cook longer in the oven afterwards so you don't want them to be too soft).
Reserve 1½ cups of pasta water, and then drain the pasta and place into a bowl. Lightly drizzle the cooked shells with 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, this helps the shells not to stick together. Set aside.
Grate the zucchini, place it in a tea towel and squeeze out all the excess liquid. Slice and dice the mushrooms into smaller pieces.
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick fry pan and cook the zucchini, mushrooms and spinach until softened and starting to get some colour (about 5 minutes). Season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat, transfer to a large bowl and let cool for a few minutes. Stir in the ricotta cheese and 1 tablespoon of the fresh chopped parsley. Mix together until combined and set aside.
Using a medium-sized pot over medium heat, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Finely chop or crush the garlic cloves and add it to the pot. Let it cook for 1 minute, then add the tin of chopped tomatoes, pasta sauce, basil and 1 cup of reserved pasta water. Bring it to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes (add more water if it’s too thick), add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the sauce into a baking dish (about 30 x 20cm).
Stuff 1½ to 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture into each shell and then arrange them in a baking dish, nestling them into the sauce, seam-side up. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and pop in the oven for around 15-20 minutes.
Sprinkle on remaining 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley and serve immediately.