Did you know that tomatoes were once known as “love apples” and prized for their associations with Venus?
Celery and garlic, too, were once thought to possess special powers in the arena of love. This wonderful version of classic stuffed shells is bursting with all three, plus creamy cheese, tangy capers, and pleasantly pungent little olives.
This robust and satisfying dish may be made up to three days ahead, too! It is a real must-try.
At least 16 large pasta shells
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups minced onions
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup ricotta cheese, whole-milk or part-skim
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes
1/2 cup water, or 1/4 cup red wine and 1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons drained capers
1/4 cup tiny Nicoise olives (the smaller the better), pitted
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
1. Make the stuffing: in a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the onions for 5 minutes or until they soften, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and celery. Saute for 3 minutes, stirring often. Add 1/2 cup water, and let vegetables cook for 10 minutes or until the celery is tender. Take pan off the heat, and add the ricotta, Parmesan, and salt and pepper.
2. Meanwhile, begin the sauce: In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat, and add the garlic. Saute it for a minute or so (do not let it brown). Then break apart the tomatoes by squeezing them in your hand, one by one, and drop them into the sauce. Add the water, or red wine and water, and oregano, and simmer the sauce for 25 minutes. Take the sauce off the heat, and add the capers, olives, basil, and salt and pepper to taste.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta shells, and cook them, stirring occasionally, until they are cooked al dente, about 8 minutes. Remove the shells with a sieve, and drop them into a big bowl of cold water. Then take out one shell, stuff it with a spoonful of the ricotta mixture, and place it on a lightly oiled casserole pan (a 9-by-9-inch pan works well). Stuff more shells until all the filling is used. You should have at least 16 stuffed shells, snugly fitted in the pan. Pour the tomato sauce over the shells, and cover the pan with foil. (At this point, you can refrigerate the shells, to be baked up to 3 days later.)
4. Preheat the oven to 350F. Bake the shells until they are hot, about 25 minutes (or about 35 minutes if the casserole was chilled). Serve the shells hot.