It wasn’t always picture perfect. One time my brother, 5 or 6 years old at the time, claimed that a bite of egg would make him throw up. Upon ingesting the offending egg, he proceeded to make his pronouncement come true right by his chair to the alarm and disgust of everyone else. Many a night, one (or two) of us would be left staring at a piece of broccoli or a pile of peas while twisting a napkin in bored defiance. More than once, the theatrics of a family argument on such serious topics as who allowed the hamster to escape (again) or whose turn it was to feed the dog, upstaged the lovingly prepared food on our plates.
Yet for all the nights it failed spectacularly, as I grew up my family always ate dinner together around the table. I honestly can’t remember one night in the 18 years I lived at home where I ate dinner in front of a television.
My husband and I have always made an effort to eat together at the table most nights, but even we occasionally break our resolve at the sight of our comfortable couch and a good Netflix DVD. Now, with a little one on our hands, finding the time to sit together to share a meal between bath and bedtime bottle seems even more daunting and I know things will only get busier as she gets bigger.
Still I want to make the effort and make eating together a priority for my family. After all, when you sit down to eat a meal together you talk. Sometimes it’s just about the mundane happenings of the day. Was the garbage taken out? Did you pick up coffee? Occasionally, we end up stumbling on a topic that raises hackles and has us continuing to hash it out over dishes. Other times, I learn why my husband quit gymnastics or stumble upon some other story that despite years together I somehow missed. Regardless of the topic, we are taking the time to catch up with one another and just as each spoonful of food nourishes my body, I like to think that each conversation is doing the same good for my spirit.
The hearty meat sauce recipe below is affectionately known as spaghetti sauce in my family as spaghetti is what it usually tops. My grandmother made it for my mom and her siblings, and my mom, in turn, made it for my dad, my brothers and me. To me, this sauce over noodles is the very definition of a family meal.
My mother is a very talented cook with a great repertoire of dishes, but growing up spaghetti night was a family favorite and it happened without fail once a week. My mother always made the sauce in large batches that would simmer on the stove for hours and I do the same today. I never make just one recipe of the sauce and have even quadrupled it at times. The flavor of the sauce only enhances with time in the freezer and frozen in smaller portions, it’s a great meal to have at the ready. More recently, my mom added a can of diced tomatoes to the recipe and I think it’s an inspired addition. I always use fire roasted diced tomatoes for the extra flavor they provide.
Once you stock your freezer with sauce, this recipe for spinach and ricotta stuffed shells takes only minutes to prepare and will feed a crowd. While your favorite pasta sauce can be used in place of my mom’s spaghetti sauce, I prefer my mother’s sauce for the flavor. It’s also a reminder of her determination to not only feed, but also to gather every evening with her family. In that spirit, I hope this dish brings your family to the table. Happy cooking!
Note: For the pictures, I made two 8 x 8-inch casseroles instead of 1 (9 x 13-inch) casserole as listed in the recipe below.
Spinach and Ricotta-Stuffed Shells – Printer Friendly Recipe for Shells and Sauce
Serves 8 to 10 people
Squeezing water from spinach is always a messy proposition. I learned a clever trick for draining spinach years ago when I was interning with chef and cookbook author Nathalie Dupree in Charleston, SC. You simply place the spinach to be drained on a plate and set another plate on top of it. Hold the plates on their side over a sink or bowl and press the two plates together. The water drains out and you are left with perfectly drained spinach on the plate.
I like to finish this dish with a dusting of parmesan cheese at the table. For cheese lovers, throw some grated mozzarella cheese over the sauce before baking.
6 cups Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce (see recipe below) or your favorite pasta sauce
About 36 large dried pasta shells
1 lb (16 ounces) whole milk ricotta
4 ounces (about ½ cup packed) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 ounce (about 1 cup) finely grated parmesan cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon grated fresh nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large 9 x 13-inch casserole dish with butter.
Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the pasta shells and cook for about 9 minutes or until they still retain a bit of a bite. They will cook longer in the oven. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the ricotta, the spinach, parmesan, egg, salt, black pepper, and nutmeg.
Pour 2 cups of Mom’s spaghetti sauce over the bottom of the greased casserole dish. Fill each shell with a heaping spoonful of the ricotta mixture and place, stuffed side up, in the casserole dish. You should be able to get about 30 shells in the casserole dish. There will be a few extra pasta shells leftover after stuffing that make good nibbles for the cook.
Ladle the remaining 4 cups of spaghetti sauce over the stuffed shells. Bake, uncovered, in the oven for 45 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Enjoy.
Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce – Printer Friendly Recipe for Sauce Only
Makes about 8 cups
This sauce actually improves in flavor when frozen. I always double the recipe, but have also quadrupled it upon occasion. I have never had a problem with not being able to eat all of it. I call for Hunt’s tomato sauce and tomato paste in the recipe as that is what my mother has always used. I don’t mess with perfection.
1 lb ground beef, Italian Sausage (hot or sweet), or a combination of beef/sausage
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 (15-ounce) can Hunt’s Tomato Sauce
1 (15-ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 (6-ounce) can Hunt’s Tomato Paste
Brown the beef and/or sausage in a large Dutch oven until no longer pink. Carefully drain the fat and add the onion and garlic to the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft. Add the Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, and bay leaf to the pot and stir to combine.
Add the tomato sauce, fire-roasted diced tomatoes, and tomato paste. Add 1 (15-ounce) can of water. Stir everything together and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a low simmer and simmer for approximately 2 hours. Serve immediately or freeze.