Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stuffed Shells with Almond Ricotta

In an effort to support my newly vegan friends, I recently hosted a dinner party. I had seven people in my tiny apartment, by far the most I’ve ever attempted. I only capped it at seven because that is literally the number of chairs I have. I absolutely love cooking for people. My favorite events have always been the ones where everyone comes over to my house. When I was little, I would spend an hour setting the table, folding the napkins into fun shapes, and selecting a color palette to coordinate with the food...or my outfit. In college, I would whip up one of the three dishes I could execute competently, and invite the girls across the hall who would contribute a bottle of cheap wine. Now that I am vegan, I relish the opportunity to make something delicious for people who don’t know a lot about vegan food, and maybe have negative associations with the word.

In putting together this menu, I wanted something warm and cozy; it is winter even if it’s 70 degrees outside. I also wanted something impressive, a big platter you can set on the table full of bright colors and tantalizing smells that make your mouth water. Stuffed shells with almond ricotta, spinach, basil, and a rich baked tomato sauce seemed like the perfect choice. I paired it with a big, fresh salad inspired by my Aunt Mary Beth: spring greens with radishes, carrots, cucumber, corn, edamame, and oranges dressed with lemon, garlic, and olive oil.

People started arriving just as I was setting out crusty sourdough bread with garlic infused olive oil. We opened a bottle of champagne, and everyone squeezed into my tiny kitchen. Someone remarked that it was like we were dancing, everyone shifting position slightly as I moved from counter to stove to sink to fridge. We demolished the better part of two loaves of bread before the oil ran out, and Christian helped me stuff the shells and get them in the oven. Thirty minutes later, I carried the pan of shells, bubbling and rich, straight to the table. It was even better than I had imagined.

Almond Ricotta
adapted from Artisan Vegan Cheeses by Miyoko Schinner

2 cups blanched almonds (you can use raw almonds, but you have to peel them first)
1 cup water

In a medium sized bowl, cover the almonds completely with cold water. Let soak for 8 to 12 hours. Combine the almonds and water in a blender or food processor, and blend until light and fluffy. You can decide how smooth you want your ricotta to be. I like mine just a little gritty, but mostly creamy. You can store the ricotta for up to a week, so feel free to prepare this step ahead of time.

Stuffed Shells
adapted from Artisan Vegan Cheeses by Miyoko Schinner

1 pound large pasta shells (conchiglie giganti!)
5 cups of tomato sauce
1 recipe Almond Ricotta
4 cups spinach, lightly packed
1/2 cup basil leaves, lightly packed
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shells, and cook according to the package directions, about 9 minutes. Drain, and rinse under cold water, and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and garlic. Mix thoroughly.

Microwave the spinach for 1 to 2 minutes until completely wilted. Chop coarsely, and add to the ricotta mixture.

Slice the basil finely, and add to the ricotta mixture. Taste for salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 375°. Spoon one cup of sauce into the bottom of an ovenproof pan, and spread evenly. Stuff each shell with about 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture, and place in the pan. Squeeze the shells tightly together as you fill the pan. Once full, spoon the remaining 4 cups of tomato sauce over the shells. Cover with foil, and bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until the shells are hot all the way in the middle. Serve hot and bubbling right from the oven.

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