This dish began as a way to use up leftovers. When I was in high school, we liked to mix yesterday’s spaghetti with yesterday’s tomato sauce, add some chopped-up mozzarella and handfuls of Parmesan, and bake portions in the large ramekins we used for French Onion Soup. The result, as I’m sure you can imagine, tastes like great pasta with tomato sauce plus added richness from the cheese. And it has that extra savoriness you get in leftovers whose flavors have had time to combine (see stews, lentils, et al.).
And yet it took me a decade to realize that this casserole could stand on its own, as a first-night dish, not just a super smart use of what’s left from our favorite weekly meal. Yet its longevity, or the fact that it gets better with time, means that it’s a great potluck dish. That’s the reason I’ve made it the last few times–once for Mag Club, and once for a post-Thanksgiving potluck at my sister’s where it was a welcome alternative to gobbling more turkey. Make it in the morning and bake it at your host’s (or skip the potluck and just have a quick dinner when you get home), and though it’s simple beyond simple, I guarantee everyone will love it.
From my kitchen, albeit small, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Baked Shells with Tomato and Mozzarella
1 recipe tomato sauce (about 28 ounces)
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
3/4 pound large shells
1/2 pound mozzarella, diced
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush a 9 by 9-inch baking dish (preferably one pretty enough to put down on the table) with olive oil.
In a large bowl, or in the pan in which you cooked the pasta or sauce, toss the sauce, the basil, the shells, and the mozzarella. Throw in 1/2 cup of parmesan and grind in some pepper. Taste for salt, adding some if necessary. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the edges of the pasta is browned.
Makes about 28 ounces
1 onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 can good-quality whole tomatoes (I like Muir Glen), pureed in a food processor or with a stick blender*
Note: You can of course buy already pureed tomatoes, but I find that whole tomatoes preserve their taste best.
In a large saucepan, heat about 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent. Add the garlic and cook another 2 minutes, just until translucent but not brown.
Sprinkle in some salt (1/4 teaspoon is a good start, if you’re measuring). Add the tomatoes and stir. Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat so the sauce simmers, and let it reduce for about 15 minutes, until it has thickened. Taste for salt, adding more as necessary. Grind in some pepper if you like. Use immediately, or cool to room temperature and then store in the fridge for 5 days.