Stuffed Shells with Artichoke and Prosciutto
In Southern Ontario, we don’t usually see a heat wave like this until mid-July. When I got into my car after work today, the steering wheel was so hot that my fingertips are now glossy red and swollen from trying to turn it as gingerly as possible for the drive home. Until our current heat wave breaks, I don’t foresee much hot food going on the table, and certainly nothing that involves heating up my oven and therefore turning my ventilation-free kitchen into a great big tandoor full of appliances.
I am one of those ungrateful people that craves fiddleheads and freshly shelled sweet peas in the winter, longing for the spring to greet us with new shoots and fresh produce. But as soon as I have those things, I can’t wait for drippy sweet stone fruits and sun warmed tomatoes eaten right off the vine. The problem, of course, is that by August I’m back to craving sweet potatoes and slow braised meats, even if the temperature outside disagrees with me and within weeks of parsnip-season I’ll be wishing for the tender young asparagus and counting down the days until spring rolls back around. Or, even worse, I start considering the option of roasting a turkey in the middle of July, when the air is hot enough that I could probably just leave it on my deck and let it roast away.
I’m trying to come to terms with that fickle nature of mine, and just embrace the glories of the seasons as they come along. I am also trying to be sensitive to the costs (monetary and environmental) of excessive hydro consumption, and take the high road of responsibility. I don’t turn on my dishwasher at 5 pm during peak time, and it doesn’t make sense to blast my house with cold air when I’m not home, so I certainly can’t justify cranking up the air conditioning for the sake of satisfying a craving for cheese stuffed pasta in a rich tomato sauce with ribbons of lusciously fragrant fresh basil nested on top and…….and where was I going with this? Oh yes, until the heat breaks, this is quite possibly one of the last posts I’ll have for a while that includes something as crazy as an *oven temperature*.
Stuffed Shells with Artichoke and Prosciutto
Serves 6 – 8
- 1/2 lb (250 g) jumbo pasta shells
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 can (28 oz) diced tomato *
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 3 large cloves garlic
- 2 tubs (1.75 lb or 800 g) ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 5 oz (150 g) Prosciutto
- 1 large jar (~1.5 lb or 680 g) marinated artichoke hearts **
- 5 oz (150 g) Asiago cheese, divided
- small bunch basil, divided
- salt and pepper to taste
* The best flavor you can get in this sauce will either be from canned San Marzano tomatoes or ripe sunshine-fresh late summer tomatoes (about 5-6 Roma will be enough). If that’s not an option for you, feel free to use regular canned diced tomatoes and sprinkle on a small pinch of sugar as they cook down.
** Marinated artichoke hearts (usually imported from Italy) can be bought either whole, halved or chopped and packed in a briny herbed vinaigrette. I wouldn’t suggest using the water packed canned artichokes, as they are somewhat lacking in flavor. If you have frozen artichoke hearts, you can saute them lightly with some olive oil, salt, pepper and dried oregano until they’re tender. Liberally squeeze on some lemon juice and let them cool before chopping up for this dish.
Put a large pot of water on and bring it to a boil while you start on the sauce. At some point during your sauce making process, the water will come to a boil. Salt it heavily and then cook the jumbo pasta shells for about 8 minutes, or until they are al dente. They should be malleable, but still hold their form and have a bit of tooth to them. Drain the pasta and lay them in a single layer under a moist tea towel until you’re ready to stuff.
Finely mince the garlic cloves and grate or shred the onion.
Warm the butter and olive oil in a fairly large sauce pan set over medium low heat. When the butter is melted, add the pulpy onions (and all their juices) and minced garlic. Let this cook slowly for at least 7-10 minutes, or until the onions are a rich golden color. Add in the chopped tomatoes and all of their juices.
Keeping the saucepan on medium low heat, cook the tomatoes down for 15-20 minutes, occasionally pausing to press on the larger chunks with the back of your spoon in encouragement. The resulting sauce should still be rustic and slightly chunky, but if you can see diced tomato put a bit of muscle into it.
Season the sauce with salt and pepper and set it aside to cool.
Dollop the ricotta into a fairly large mixing bowl and crack in the egg. Season this well with salt and lots of freshly ground pepper.
Chop the artichokes and thinly slice (or chop) the prosciutto. Chiffonade or finely chop half of the basil (about 3 heaping tablespoons full) and add it to the mix along with with 2.5 ounces of finely shredded Asiago cheese. If you’re a volume measurements person, that’s about 1.5 generous cups. When you have everything assembled, stir the mixture well until it is combined and things are well distributed. If you can handle the fact that there’s a raw egg involved, take a small nibble of the filling to check if it needs additional salt and pepper.
At this point, heat your oven to 350ºF so it has time to come up to temperature while you stuff some shells.
Spread 1/3 of the sauce evenly over the base of a large (9×13″) baking dish.
Stuff the shells and nestle them together open side up in the dish. They should be close enough that they’re propped against one another in support, like kindred spirits at an AA meeting (whatever, I totally meant ‘Artichoke and Asiago’ anyway). DO NOT be stingy with the filling mixture, because that’s really what this dish is all about. You should be plumping up those shells with at least 2-3 tablespoons each, heaping it in, and scraping the bowl of filling clean at the end. You can do it, I have faith in you. Remember, there is no such thing as too much cheese.
Spoon on the rest of the sauce, but try to dollop it in the areas between the shells rather than directly on top. You want the sauce between them to keep the dish moist, and it would be such a shame to cover up the milky white throats of those voluptuous shells.
Finally, sprinkle on the remaining 2.5 ounces (1.5 cups) of Asiago cheese evenly over top.
Wrap the baking dish tightly with tin foil and tuck it in the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until it has heated through, the cheese has melted into the sauce, and you just can’t contain yourself anymore.
Chiffonade the remaining basil and sprinkle this on top of the dish right before serving.
A spot of garlic bread would hardly be amiss to soak up that enriched tomato sauce, would it? I thought not.
If this is the last spot of cheesy baked comfort food that I get to have for a while, I’m okay with that. It did the trick. Pillowy soft ricotta, salty prosciutto and nutty artichokes are certainly nothing to sniff at, and will hopefully tide me over until the A/C finally cools the house down….some time in September, would be my guess.