Stuffed Shells with Chicken and Spinach

Continuing with the make ahead theme these cheesy rich shells are just what Santa ordered for Christmas Eve dinner.  Make them several days ahead and then just pop them in the oven when people get hungry.  This dish also makes a great gift for a neighbor or friend that has extra family in town and no time to cook!  I give you several sizes that work for this recipe – you can chose to make one mega dish or several smaller ones to share or make throughout the week.  The shells are pretty rich with the bechamel sauce and all the cheese to I would only estimate 3 or 4 shells per person with a nice Caesar salad on the side.  There are a bunch of steps to this (might be the longest directions I have ever written) but since you can do it in advance no one needs to see you sweat.  Also sometimes its nice to bury yourself in the kitchen for a little alone time!

Stuffed Shells with Chicken and Spinach (printable version at the end of the post)

Inspiration:  feed a crowd
Special Equipment:  a large baking dish or several smaller baking dishes

  • 12 ounces jumbo shell pasta
  • 2 rotisserie chicken breasts, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
  • 2 pinches of red pepper flakes
  • 4 ounces of diced pancetta
  • 1 pound baby spinach
  • 8 ounces ricotta cheese, room temperature
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 8 ounces grated mozzarella cheese
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Follow the directions on the pasta box and cook the pasta slightly al dente (the Barilla brand actually tells you how long to cook it for a baked pasta versus just serving them as pasta – if yours doesn’t just cook it a couple minutes shy of done).  Drain and spread the shells out on a baking sheet to cool.

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Once cool, toss any broken pieces.  In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes, and pancetta to the pan and saute for 5 minutes or until the shallots are softened and the pancetta has cooked.  Start adding the spinach in large handfuls to the pan.

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From this…

As you add the spinach use tongs or a spoon to fold the spinach into the shallot mixture.  The spinach will start to wilt and you can continue to add until it all fits in the pan.  This should take about 3-4 minutes to get it all wilted down.  Once it is wilted, crank up the heat to medium high and cook off the liquid the spinach has released for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Take off the heat and reserve.

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..to this!

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, if planning on cooking the shells right away.  In a large bowl combine the ricotta, egg, lemon zest, half the mozzarella cheese and salt and pepper.  Add the chicken and the spinach mixture to the bowl and stir to combine.  Now that your pasta shells have cooled they are ready to be filled.  I use my hands but use a teaspoon if that helps.  To make sure I have enough to fill all the shells I divide the filling mixture in 4 and then fill a quarter of the shells and then continue until they are all filled.

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In a saucepan heat the butter over medium heat.  When it is melted add the flour and stir with a whisk until combined and the flour has cooked, for about a minute.

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Slowly pour in the milk while whisking so there are no lumps.  Increase the heat to medium high, just until the milk starts to bubble.  Then lower the heat to medium low and stir constantly until the sauce thickens and can coat the back of a spoon, about 5-6 minutes.  Stir in the nutmeg, salt, pepper and 1/3 of the grated Parmesan cheese.

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This recipe makes one very large tray of shells in a 9 x 13 pan, a medium sized 9 x 13 and a 7 x 5 pan, or two 9 x 9 pans.  It all depends on how tightly you pack in the shells and how many people you want to serve at once (for these pictures I have a 9 x 13 pan and a 7 x 5 pan which served a family of 4 and a family of 2 respectfully – with leftovers).  Once you have selected your pans spread a thin later of the sauce on the bottom of the pan.  Then fill the entire pan(s) with the shells, open side up.  Top with the rest of the sauce and then sprinkle on the other half of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

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Cover the pans with tin foil.  If you are making the shells later, let the shells cool completely and store in the fridge for several days before baking.  If you are baking them right away bake the shells covered at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, then take off the tin foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly before serving.

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Stuffed Shells with Chicken and Spinach

  • Servings: 8
  • Time: 1 1/2 hours
  • Print

Special Equipment:  a large baking dish or several smaller baking dishes

  • 12 ounces jumbo shell pasta
  • 2 rotisserie chicken breasts, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
  • 2 pinches of red pepper flakes
  • 4 ounces of diced pancetta
  • 1 pound baby spinach
  • 8 ounces ricotta cheese, room temperature
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 8 ounces grated mozzarella cheese
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Follow the directions on the pasta box and cook the pasta slightly al dente (the Barilla brand actually tells you how long to cook it for a baked pasta versus just serving them as pasta – if yours doesn’t just cook it a couple minutes shy of done).  Drain and spread the shells out on a baking sheet to cool.  Once cool, toss any broken pieces.  In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes, and pancetta to the pan and saute for 5 minutes or until the shallots are softened and the pancetta has cooked.  Start adding the spinach in large handfuls to the pan.  As you add the spinach use tongs or a spoon to fold the spinach into the shallot mixture.  The spinach will start to wilt and you can continue to add until it all fits in the pan.  This should take about 3-4 minutes to get it all wilted down.  Once it is wilted, crank up the heat to medium high and cook off the liquid the spinach has released for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Take off the heat and reserve.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, if planning on cooking the shells right away.  In a large bowl combine the ricotta, egg, lemon zest, half the mozzarella cheese and salt and pepper.  Add the chicken and the spinach mixture to the bowl and stir to combine.  Now that your pasta shells have cooled they are ready to be filled.  I use my hands but use a teaspoon if that helps.  To make sure I have enough to fill all the shells I divide the filling mixture in 4 and then fill a quarter of the shells and then continue until they are all filled.

In a saucepan heat the butter over medium heat.  When it is melted add the flour and stir with a whisk until combined and the flour has cooked, for about a minute.  Slowly pour in the milk while whisking so there are no lumps.  Increase the heat to medium high, just until the milk starts to bubble.  Then lower the heat to medium low and stir constantly until the sauce thickens and can coat the back of a spoon, about 5-6 minutes.  Stir in the nutmeg, salt, pepper and 1/3 of the grated Parmesan cheese.  This recipe makes one very large tray of shells in a 9 x 13 pan, a medium sized 9 x 13 and a 7 x 5 pan, or two 9 x 9 pans.  It all depends on how tightly you pack in the shells and how many people you want to serve at once (for these pictures I have a 9 x 13 pan and a 7 x 5 pan which served a family of 4 and a family of 2 respectfully – with leftovers).

Once you have selected your pans spread a thin later of the sauce on the bottom of the pan.  Then fill the entire pan(s) with the shells, open side up.  Top with the rest of the sauce and then sprinkle on the other half of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.  Cover the pans with tin foil.  If you are making the shells later, let the shells cool completely and store in the fridge for several days before baking.  If you are baking them right away bake the shells covered at 375 degrees for 30 minutes, then take off the tin foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes.  Allow to cool slightly before serving.

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