I'm a sucker for stuffed pasta of any kind. I don't care what shape it is, ravioli, manicotti, whatever, if it comes out of the oven swimming in red sauce, oozing and bubbling under a thick layer of melted cheese then I want in. Who doesn't? It's comfort food at its finest. Not so comforting is the fact that meals like these pack a mean punch in the fat and calories department (some upwards of 800 calories and 20 grams of saturated fat!). So to continue to enjoy stuffed pasta, I've committed to making my own at home. One recipe I go back to again and again is EatingWell's Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Shells. You get all the ooey-gooey goodness of stuffed pasta right out the oven, with less fat and fewer calories. Here's how we made them healthier:
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1. Use more spinach:
The typical cheese-to-spinach ratio for stuffed shells weighs heavily in favor of the cheese. We reversed our thinking when we came up with this recipe--we call for nearly two pounds of spinach, which allows us to use less cheese for stuffing. The spinach adds fiber and other nutrients and helps drastically cut back on fat and calories. Replacing just 1 cup of whole milk ricotta with 1 cup spinach saves 381 calories and 31 grams of fat.
2. Think beyond cheese in your stuffing:
Cheese is delicious, but it's high in saturated fat and calories. Consider adding other ingredients like breadcrumbs to your stuffing. The flavor of the breadcrumbs is so mild that it's barely detectable. They're not only lower in fat, but they act as a binder in the stuffing to help absorb moisture from the spinach.
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3. Use cheese that's lower in fat and bigger in flavor:
Choose part-skim ricotta for stuffing. It will save you 45 calories and 6 grams of fat if you choose it over whole milk ricotta. For topping, try Parmesan instead of mozzarella. What Parmesan lacks in the melting department it more than makes up for in the flavor department, so you can use less but get more satisfying, delicious flavor in each bite.
4. Choose your sauce wisely:
Outside of fat and calories, stuffed pasta dishes also tend to be high in sodium. Sodium comes in part from the cheese, but mostly from the sauce. Since we want our shells to be saucy, look for brands of marinara that are lower in sodium or make your own sauce from unsalted crushed tomatoes.
Spinach & Cheese Stuffed Shells
Active time: 1 1/4 hours | Total: 2 hours
Our stuffed shells are filled with spinach, sautéed onions and part-skim ricotta and topped with prepared marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese. The shells hold and reheat well, which makes them great for entertaining.
24 jumbo pasta shells (8 ounces)
1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
2 pounds fresh spinach, trimmed and washed, or two 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
2/3 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 large egg white, lightly beaten
3 cups prepared marinara sauce, preferably low-sodium
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook shells in a large pot of boiling water, stirring often, until just tender, about 15 minutes or according to package directions. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. If using fresh spinach, add it in batches and toss with tongs until wilted. Drain in a colander, pressing out excess moisture with the back of a spoon. Let cool. If using thawed frozen, add it to the onions and toss to mix well. Set aside.
3. Combine ricotta, breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup Parmesan and nutmeg in a bowl; mix well. Add the reserved spinach and season with salt and pepper. Stir in egg white.
4. Stuff each of the reserved shells with a generous 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture. Spread 1 cup marinara sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange the stuffed shells in a single layer. Top with the remaining 2 cups of the sauce and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake until the top is golden and the shells are heated through, about 30 minutes. (If the top browns too quickly, tent loosely with foil.) Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 438 calories; 12 g fat (6 g sat, 4 g mono); 32 mg cholesterol; 59 g carbohydrates; 25 g protein; 7 g fiber; 574 mg sodium; 1,121 mg potassium.
What comfort food favorites do you wish were healthier?
By Hilary Meyer
EatingWell Associate Food Editor Hilary Meyer spends much of her time in the EatingWell Test Kitchen, testing and developing healthy recipes. She is a graduate of New England Culinary Institute.
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