I’ve always been a picky eater. When I was little, I could not abide onions in my food especially in spaghetti sauce. It’s probably the primary reason I learned to cook. Spaghetti sauce was one of the very first things I ever made by myself. From there, learning to make lasagna with homemade sauce was an easy jump, and stuffed shells were the same as lasagna only the cheese filling is spooned into the shells instead of being layered between sheets of pasta. So, stuffed shells and I go way back. I’ve been making this dish for years, and I’ve changed up the cheese stuffing at different times. I’ve added chopped herbs or spinach. I’ve even used silken tofu mixed with ricotta. I saw this version of stuffed shells in the October issue of Food and Wine, and this was a twist on the classic I’d never tried. Fennel, onion, and radicchio were sauteed and then added to ricotta with some grated fontina. As a kid, I never would have gone for this combination, but I’m a little less picky in some ways these days.
Oddly, this recipe starts with the instruction to pre-heat the oven. You won’t actually need to do that until you start stuffing the shells. First, you saute thinly sliced fennel and, in my case, minced onion in olive oil and melted butter. I still have an onion phobia and always mince them. Some things never change. Once the fennel is very tender and lightly browned, chopped radicchio is added. The quantities for fennel, onion, and radicchio seemed a bit too large to me. I ended up only using a little over half of the vegetables, and I stored the rest in the freezer for next time. Once the vegetables are sauteed and completely tender, they were left to cool and then added to a mixing bowl with two beaten eggs, some ricotta, grated fontina, and chopped parsley. Meanwhile, water was brought to a boil, and jumbo pasta shells were partially cooked. The shells should be pliable enough to stuff, but not completely cooked through. There’s a homemade marinara sauce recipe included in the article, and I had made the sauce in advance. Whole, canned tomatoes were used along with garlic, tomato paste, and basil, and thankfully, there was no onion. Some of the sauce was spooned into a baking dish, and as each shell was stuffed, it was placed on top of the sauce. More sauce covered the shells, and additional grated fontina was sprinkled on top. The shells were then baked for about 40 minutes.
It’s interesting to taste the radicchio as it sautes and the bitterness wanes. Pairing it with fontina also levels off any remaining hints of bitter flavor. I admit I still have a thing about onions. I like the smell and flavor of onions but have no appreciation for any noticeable chunks of onion in dishes. Hence, I always mince them. I’ve completely changed my mind about every other vegetable though and was thrilled with all the colors, textures, and flavors in this cheese stuffing. Besides, stuffed shells have always been easy to like.