Four Cheese Veggie and Pesto Stuffed Shells scream comfort food! This is meal prep at its finest with jumbo pasta shells nestled in zesty tomato sauce and stuffed with a blend of ricotta, fontina, mascarpone and parmesan. A mouthwatering, make-ahead meal perfect for busy weeknights and entertaining!
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Why You’ll Love this Recipe
Admittedly there is a lot going on here, but the beauty of this recipe is the sauce, filling, pesto and even the shells can be made ahead of assembling. And, you can put the whole thing together a day before you want to bake it or stick in the freezer.
Shortcuts: If you’re strapped for time, by all means pick up your favorite jarred sauce and pesto from the market along with already shredded cheese.
Key Ingredients & Substitutions
As I’ve said before, recipes are literally a starting point you can either stick with or change up to your heart’s desire. Here are some alternatives for each component:
Sauce – I used a half pound each of mild and spicy Italian sausage which you could use one pound of one or the other, or omit the meat entirely to make the dish vegetarian.
Cheese – Ricotta, fontina, mascarpone, and parmesan was my four-cheese blend of choice for the filling, then added some fresh mozzarella on top for extra gooeyness. Shredded provolone or mozzarella could replace the fontina, and either softened cream cheese or goat cheese can be substituted for mascarpone.
Vegetables – We loved the combination of zucchini, mushrooms and spinach (love it in omelettes too!), but use whatever your gang prefers, including broccoli, peppers, eggplant and other super greens.
Pesto – Classic basil pesto made the grade here because of the huge pot I have of it on my patio. You can always add parsley, oregano, or thyme. The pesto adds another level of flavor to the filling and is drizzled on top. If pesto isn’t really your thing, leaving it out won’t hurt my feelings.
Shells – In lieu of shells, the filling would be equally delicious piped into another pasta like manicotti or large rigatoni. And, you can always go low-carb by stuffing mini peppers, or filling strips of zucchini and eggplant.
Regardless of what you decide to stuff, once you have all the components ready, get filling! I found it easiest to place the filling in a resealable plastic bag, snip a corner, then pipe the mixture right into the shell. Feel free to use a spoon if you like. Either way each shell should get a good couple tablespoons of filling.
Spread four to five cups of the sauce in the bottom of the baking dish for the shells to nestle into. After the shells are filled and arranged, add a little more sauce, scatter the mozzarella, drizzle with extra pesto, and she’s ready to bake whenever you are.
In 25-30 minutes you’ll have bubbling cheesy, saucy deliciousness just waiting to be served. Drizzle with a bit more pesto, garnish with extra basil, and pour your favorite vino. Enjoy, friends! Cheers!!
More of our Favorite Pasta Recipes to Try!
Four Cheese Veggie and Pesto Stuffed Shells
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- ½ pound spicy Italian sausage, removed from casing
- ½ pound mild Italian sausage, removed from casing
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ¾ cup dry vermouth or white wine
- 2 28- ounce cans crushed tomatoes
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon each dried oregano, parsley and basil
- 1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- kosher salt and pepper
Filling & Assembly
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 small zucchini, chopped into ½-inch dice
- 6 ounces mushrooms, sliced
- 4 ounces baby spinach
- Kosher salt and pepper
- 16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
- 10 ounces fontina cheese, shredded
- 4 ounces mascarpone cheese
- ⅓ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 1 cup basil pesto, homemade* or store bought, divided
- 1 large egg
- 12 ounces jumbo pasta shells, cooked al dente according to package instructions
- 4 ounces mozzarella, sliced or torn
- Fresh basil for garnish
- 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
- 2 large cloves garlic, peeled
- ½ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- ¼ cup pine nuts (optional)
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook until browned, 5-7 minutes. Break up larger pieces with a wooden spoon as it cooks.
- With a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to paper towel-lined plate to drain.
- Heat remaining tablespoon olive oil in the pot. Add onion and cook until softened and beginning to caramelize, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Stir in garlic and cook 1-2 minutes.
- Pour in vermouth or wine to deglaze the bottom of the pot, scraping up any brownings with a wooden spoon, about 3 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, dried herbs and crushed red pepper flakes. Return the sausage to the pot. Season with salt and pepper.
- Simmer for 15 minutes so flavors blend and sauce thickens slightly. (Makes about 8 cups. Can be made a day before assembling shells. Let cool then cover and refrigerate.)
Filling & Assembly
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat.
- Add the zucchini and mushrooms to the pan. Cook about 5 minutes or until vegetables begin to soften.
- Stir in spinach by the handful and let wilt before adding more. Once all the spinach is wilted and incorporated, transfer the vegetable mixture to a medium bowl. Set aside to cool slightly.
- In a large bowl, mix the ricotta, fontina, mascarpone, parmesan, ½ cup pesto, and egg with a handheld mixer or by hand until well combined. Fold in cooled vegetables. (Filling can be made 1 day ahead of assembling. Cover and refrigerate.)
- Transfer the mixture to a gallon size zip-lock bag. Snip about a ¾-inch off one corner of the bag.
- To assemble, lightly grease a 9×13 inch baking dish. Spread 4-5 cups of the sauce in the bottom of the baking dish.
- Pipe about 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture into each pasta shell** and place in the baking dish.
- Spoon another cup or so of the sauce on top of the shells. Arrange the mozzarella on top. Drizzle about ¼ cup pesto over the shells. (Can be assembled 1 day before baking. Cover and refrigerate. Let sit at room temperature 1 hour before baking.) See Notes below on how to freeze stuffed shells.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake for 25-30 minutes. The sauce should be bubbling and cheese melted. Remove from oven and allow to cool 5-10 minutes before serving.
- Serve with any remaining pesto on the side and rewarmed extra sauce. Grate on more parm and garnish with fresh basil. Enjoy!
- Add basil, garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts to bowl of a food processor. Pulse until well combined.
- With the machine running, slowly pour in the oil. Process until desired consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Makes about 1 cup. Can be made 1 day ahead of assembling the shells. Transfer pesto to an airtight container and refrigerate.)
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