For this al forno recipe, we look first to the fields of Toscana for fresh spinaci, a leaf well-known, and loved, across il bel paese for its pairing with another Italian staple: ricotta. Together, when combined with ample seasoning, these two ingredients form the most widely-used filling for pasta ripiena, or filled pasta. Here, however, we haven't loaded our filling into tortelloni, cappellacci or even ravioli, but rather conchiglioni - gargantuan pasta shells; the big brother to better-known conchiglie.
After they’ve been hand-stuffed with this delectable filling, the sumptuous conchiglioni, are laid together in a tray, covered and baked with an Italian grated cheese topping until they emerge from the oven - forno in Italian, giving us the term al forno - with a supremely crunchy, burnished crust. This is a classic winter dish which promises to keep the January blues at bay and transport you to a cozy Italian focolare, or hearthside.
Preparation Time: 1 hour (including cooking time)
- 350g Conchiglioni (large pasta shells, fresh or dried will work)
- 150g-200g Mozzarella (roughly sliced)
- A few fresh basil leaves
For the Sauce:
- 1tbsp Olive oil
- 2 Onions, finely diced
- 2 Cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 x 400g Tins chopped tomatoes
- 1tbsp Tomato purée
- 1 Generous handful fresh basil
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the Filling:
- 160g Fresh spinach
- 500g Ricotta cheese
- Generous grating of nutmeg
- Plenty of salt and pepper
- First, cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packaging until it’s al dente, be careful not to overcook
- When done, drain the pasta, rinse with cold water and set to one side
- Whilst the pasta cooks, gently fry the onions in the olive oil and when they turn translucent turn the heat down and add the garlic
- Pour in the tomatoes and simmer for 20 minutes, season the sauce with plenty of salt and pepper and add the basil leaves for the last five minutes of cooking, tearing them as you throw them in to unleash their full flavour
- Rinse the spinach with boiling water in a colander to soften the leaves and then cool with a little cold water and squeeze out as much of the liquid as you can, dab with kitchen roll or a tea towel to dry
- Chop the spinach and place in a large bowl. Mix in the ricotta cheese, ensuring it’s thoroughly incorporated
- Season the spinach mixture with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste
- Line a large roasting tin or a rectangular oven-proof dish with about ⅓ of the tomato sauce
- Individually fill each of the cooked conchiglioni with a generous spoonful of the spinach and ricotta mix and layer on top of the tomato sauce (open side up) so that the base of the dish is covered
- Pour another ⅓ of the tomato sauce over the shells and sprinkle with a little of the basil then build another layer of pasta on top of this. Repeat until the dish is full and all of your conchiglioni have been used. Finish with the last of the tomato sauce on top
- Top with the slices of mozzarella and bake for 20-25 minutes at 200°C (fan 180°C) until a golden crust has formed. Buon appetito!
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