"Jumbo shells stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella (plus and a filling of your choice!) then baked in a bed of homemade marinara sauce."
I talk a lot about how I’m trying to become a “career blogger,” and what that ultimately means is that this website is my day-to-day job. Like most jobs, sometimes it takes a while until I get the hang of things. Sometimes I need additional training until everything finally clicks. And sometimes learning is an ongoing process that just evolves over time.
As a food blogger, my photography is one of those ever-evolving things.
For those that visit this blog regularly, you (hopefully) have noticed two things: my food photos have gotten a little better and I’m posting a little less often. This is because I’m taking baby steps toward recipe development and I’m really pushing hard to improve my photography. To that end, I’ve decided I won’t post a recipe until I’ve mastered the taste and I’ve managed to capture a draw droppingly delicious photo of it.
And… this brings me to the part where I have to ask for your forgiveness, because even though I’ve made this extremely tasty recipe for ricotta stuffed shells four times over the past month, I’m still not satisfied with how the pictures turned out. Maybe that’s because I love this recipe so much that I feel like I won’t be satisfied until I can capture just the right level of OMG THIS IS SO AWESOME TO EAT.
Or maybe I’ve finally met my photography nemesis, and that nemesis goes by the names “red sauce” and “baking dishes.” But either way, I want to tell you that I wish these photos were better. I really do. Because this recipe has helped me fall in love with stuffed shells all over again, despite the attempts of our local restaurants to run me astray. It really deserves better than what I’m giving it now.
Maybe it would help to look at it this way: if I cook and photograph a recipe four times over the span of a couple weeks, I think you can safely assume I’m either monumentally (and impressively!) stubborn or this recipe was worth all that effort because it’s so amazingly good.
Or maybe it’s both of those things.
Okay, so it’s both, but I think everyone still wins here, amirite?
The first time I made this recipe was for a nice dinner with The Boyfriend and his mother. She had just flown in that day to spend the week with us, and I thought I had made iron-clad dinner plans for that evening. The keyword here is that this is what I “thought” I had, because as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And oh, did they awry.
First there was the rush hour traffic we hit as I was driving his mother home from the airport. Then I neglected to thoroughly read the recipe instructions (don’t judge, we’ve all done it) and did not realize that, no, I do not have time to socialize for an hour or so because dinner was going to take another 45 minutes longer to make than I originally thought. And 45 minutes might not seem like that big of a deal, but add in the fact that our guest was jet lagged and The Boyfriend and I haven’t eaten since before 12 and suddenly everyone starts watching the clock like a hawk.
You could have cut the anticipation over dinner with a knife. And I’m sure someone would have, if anticipation was edible.
So there I was, cooking like a fiend and trying my best to soothe everyone through the 10 year wait for dinner, and when the timer finally buzzed I had to turn to them and say: “but first,
let me take a selfie I need to photograph the food.”
Yes, I totally made our little dinner party starve for another 20 minutes while I tried to work my photography magic, but like I’ve already confessed, there wasn’t anything magical about that session. At all.
But at least I had delicious pasta to comfort me during my low point.
The other three times I made the recipe, it was around the middle of the day, far away from all the pressures and obligations of dinner. I had my fingers crossed for better lighting or maybe a stroke of good luck, but sadly the universe didn’t send either of those my way. I did the best I could with what I had and then rewarded myself with a seemingly endless supply of tasty stuffed shells for my lunches and leftovers. I still plan on making recipe a few more times until I can capture the photographs it truly deserves, but it’s not like I’ll be suffering. There are certainly worse fates than constantly making delicious food.
What about you? Have you ever made a recipe even though the picture wasn’t absolutely amazing? I know I’ve done that plenty of times myself, but as the food photography world evolves, I wonder if readers have also become more selective in what they’re willing to try.
Ricotta Stuffed Shells with Marinara
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp garlic minced
- 29 oz diced tomatoes (2 14.5 oz cans), unsalted
- 1 tsp thyme fresh (or 1/2 tsp dried thyme)
- 1 pinch salt to taste
Ricotta Stuffed Shells
- 12 jumbo shells
- 1 cup ricotta whole milk
- 2 cups mozzarella cheese shredded and separated
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup filling of your choice such as spinach, chives, ground meet, etc
For the Homemade Marinara
- Determine how chunky you'd like your Marinara sauce to be. If you'd prefer a smoother sauce, pour both cans of tomatoes in a food processor and pulse until smooth. If you'd like a chunkier sauce, only pulse one can of tomatoes and leave the other can of diced tomatoes as-is. When finished, set the tomato sauce aside.
- In a large skillet, warm the extra virgin olive oil over medium heat.
- Add garlic to skillet and cook until golden brown and fragrant, about 2-3 minutes.
- Pour in prepared tomato sauce, thyme, and salt. Blend sauce thoroughly, especially around the sides where the olive oil may sit.
- Cover sauce and reduce heat. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
For the Ricotta Stuffed Shells
- Cook jumbo shells according to package instructions, reducing cook time by 1 minute. Drain, cover, then set aside. Note: plan to cook a few more shells than you need, as jumbo shells have a tendency to break or tear while cooking.
- In a small bowl, add egg and beat lightly. Add Ricotta cheese and thoroughly mix with the egg. Finally, fold in 1 cup mozzarella and a filling of your choice, then set aside.
- Preheat oven to 360 degrees. Spray a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray. When marinara sauce has finished cooking, pour all of the sauce in the baking dish so that the bottom is completely covered.
- To fill the shells: Cup a jumbo shell in your weaker hand, facing the shell so that the tighter curl of the shell is close to your thumb and the looser part rests on your palm. Use your thumb to pry open the shell, then scoop in the ricotta cheese mix with the backside of a spoon or a spatula. When shell is filled, place it on top of the marinara sauce, seam side up.
- Sprinkle remaining mozzarella cheese generously over the stuffed shells.
- Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake for 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes. Remove dish from oven and let cool 5 minutes before serving. If desired, sprinkle more mozzarella cheese on top while the pasta cools - cheese will melt but will be more concentrated, as shown in the photograph.