Mouthwateringly cheesy while still surprisingly good for you, conchiglioni pasta (jumbo pasta shells) are the perfect vessel to use for this delicious spinach and cheese filling. Smother it with marinara (red) sauce and top it with even more grilled cheese and you have a hearty vegetarian dish to feed a crowd! In this version, traditional ricotta cheese is subbed out for healthier, lower fat and higher protein cottage cheese. Super versatile and easy to make ahead, whip this up during your weekend meal prep, pop one in the freezer as an emergency meal, bring it to a potluck or simply get the family together to make it for a meatless Monday everyone will enjoy!
There are three main components to this dish- the conchiglioni pasta, the red sauce and the cheese filling- and while it may seem like there’s a lot going on, each step is super simple.
Conchiglioni is a type of durum wheat pasta which is shaped like a really big sea shell, and can otherwise be known as jumbo pasta shells. This shape not only helps the sauce to stick to it, but also makes it perfect to stuff with delicious fillings. I prefer the shell shape compared to the tube shape of rigatoni or manicotti for stuffing as it’s so much easier to just scoop and fill the shell shapes with a spoon. Plus they’re just look super fun as well!
There are a few different sizes you can find of pasta shells- ranging from the jumbo ones we’re using for this recipe (conchiglioni), to a medium or large size (conchiglie) and to the smallest (conchigliette). The labelling here gets a bit confusing, as many similar recipes call for “large” pasta shells, while here in Australia it seems the large size often refers to a more medium size conchiglie-sized pasta in our supermarkets (which are too small to stuff comfortably). To save from confusion, I’ve found it easiest to refer to them as conchiglioni or jumbo sized pasta shells, as that’s what they’re labelled as here in our supermarkets. Another similar shell shaped pasta is lumaconi (which is closer to the shape of a snail shell) and can be used in the same way.
For this recipe, you’ll be basically par-boiling your pasta in salted water until semi cooked (very al-dente) before stuffing them with your cheese and spinach mixture and baking with your sauce. Your shells will continue cooking in the oven so you want to account for that when you’re boiling them. The cooking time may change depending on your particular bag of pasta, so use the instructions on the back of the pack as a guide- cook them for approximately half the stated time before starting to check for doneness- they should be slightly softened but still firm enough to handle easily without breaking.
There are two options for the sauce here- use either two cups (500ml) of your favourite jar of marinara / tomato based pasta sauce or make this super easy recipe from scratch! I do this while I’m watching my pasta boil so it really takes no extra time at all and it’s so worth it!
All you’ll need is an onion, a few cloves of garlic, tinned whole tomatoes and some dried oregano and fresh basil (if you have it). The onions and garlic are sautéed until soft and fragrant, before adding the remaining ingredients and simmering for a few minutes. I like to use whole tinned tomatoes for the sauce and break them up myself in the pan as it makes a thicker, chunkier sauce than crushed/diced tomatoes would.
The Spinach and Cheese Filling
The filling consists of cottage cheese, spinach (with the water squeezed out of it), eggs, dried or fresh parsley and parmesan cheese.
We’re substituting cottage cheese for the more commonly used ricotta in this recipe to make it a little healthier. This change first came about because my local grocery store had run out of ricotta the last time I wanted to make this recipe and I needed a quick substitution, but I found that the cottage cheese gave very similar results, so there was no going back! Feel free to use either regular or low fat cottage cheese depending on your preference, or of course, to use the same quantity of ricotta instead.
We’re using frozen spinach here for convenience, but you could use blanched baby spinach for the filling too (which is great if you have a big half used bag around like we often do). Blanch the spinach by putting it in a heat proof colander over the sink and pour boiling water over it. Whichever type of spinach you use- fresh or frozen- make sure you squeeze out as much water as you can with your hands before adding it to your filling mix to prevent it from becoming too watery.
A note about the cheese used- if you’re cooking for a strict vegetarian, make sure to use vegetarian cheeses as traditional parmesan (and possibly other cheeses) contain animal rennet which may be an issue for some.
Putting It All Together
Now the best bit- putting it together! Here’s how it’s going to go:
1. Base Sauce Layer: Spread about two-thirds of your red sauce across the base of a large ceramic baking dish
2. Stuffed Pasta Shells: To stuff your conchiglioni, simply take a large spoonful of the filling mixture and place it inside. It’s okay if its not super neat, we’re about to top it with more sauce and cheese so no one will know! Layer your shells in an even layer across the top of the sauce.
3. More Sauce: Ladle the rest of your sauce, as evenly as you can, across the top of the pasta shells.
4. Cheese: Cover the entire top of your dish with your remaining grated parmesan and your cheddar cheese. I like to use cheddar for its sharp saltiness in contrast with the cottage cheese, and because of the way it gets golden and crusty when grilled.
Finally, we just cover the whole dish with foil and pop it in the oven! Wait 35-45 minutes before removing the foil in the last part of baking to allow the cheese to deliciously brown.
Meal Prep, Make Ahead and Storage Instructions
Stuffed conchiglioni are great to make for meal prep as they’re easy to make in bulk, they’re easy to portion and they reheat well in the microwave. I usually make a dish for dinner that night and then portion out the leftovers for the rest of the week. If I’ll be eating it more than two days later, I’ll simply freeze the portion and reheat in the microwave as usual.
If you’re making this ahead for guests or to bring to a potluck, I would put everything together, store it in the fridge or freezer, and then bake just before serving. If you’re planning to freeze it, I would put it together it in a foil tray (rather than the heavy ceramic) and wrap it with foil so it’s ready to place in the oven. If baking from frozen, allow at least 30 extra minutes for baking.
If you have any questions or if you try this recipe let me know how you went in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you!
- ~25 (250g) conchiglioni (jumbo pasta shells)
Marinara / Red Sauce (or substitute for 2 cups (500ml) store-bought sauce)
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 large (800g / 28 oz) tin whole tomatoes
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp salt
- black pepper
Spinach and Cheese Filling
- 1 1/2 cups (250g / 10 oz) frozen spinach, squeezed of excess water (see note 1)
- 2 cups (500g / 16 oz) cottage cheese
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup (40g) grated parmesan
- 1 tbsp dried parsley (or 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- black pepper
- 1/2 cup (40g) grated parmesan
- 1 cup (150g) grated tasty cheddar cheese
- handful of fresh basil leaves
- In a large pot, bring enough water to cover your pasta (approx. 2.5L) to the boil and salt with 2 large pinches of salt. Once boiling, pour in conchiglioni (pasta shells) and cook until just softened (very al dente)- the time this takes will vary a little on your pasta, but, as a guide, start checking at the 5 minute mark, or halfway through the stated cooking time on the pack.
- Drain and rinse your pasta under cold water and set aside.
SAUCE (or substitute with 2 cups (500ml) store bought sauce)
- Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the diced onions and minced garlic, and cook and stir for about 5 minutes or until onions are tender and translucent.
- Pour the tin of tomatoes into the pot, and add the dried oregano, salt and pepper. Stir and break down tomatoes with the back of your ladle/spoon.
- Simmer the sauce until it is bubbling for a few minutes before then tasting and seasoning further if required.
SPINACH AND CHEESE FILLING
- Drain your frozen spinach (defrost it quickly by placing it in a colander and running it under tap water) and remove as much water as possible from the spinach by squeezing handfuls over the sink.
- In a large bowl, add the spinach, cottage cheese, eggs, 1/2 cup parmesan, dried parsley, salt and pepper and mix until combined.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
- Preheat your oven to 190°C / 375°F (170°C / 355°F fan)
- In a large ceramic baking dish, place a layer of sauce (approx. two-thirds of your total amount of sauce)
- Take a pasta shell and stuff each shell with a spoonful of spinach and cheese filling. Place the stuffed shell on top of sauce, and repeat with remaining shells until all shells are placed in an even layer on top of the sauce.
- Top the shells with the remaining sauce and sprinkle over remaining 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese. Cover the top with grated cheddar cheese and cover the entire dish with foil.
- Place the foil covered dish into the preheated oven and bake for 35-45 minutes or when cheese has completely melted and sauce is bubbling.
- Turn heat up to 210°C / 410°F (190°C / 375°F fan) and remove foil. Bake for a further 8-10 minutes or until cheese is golden brown.
- Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving, garnishing with fresh basil leaves if desired.
1. Spinach : substitute with blanched fresh baby spinach if preferred
Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 433Total Fat: 15.7gSaturated Fat: 7.7gCholesterol: 90mgSodium: 1001mgCarbohydrates: 42.2gFiber: 4.2gSugar: 6.3gProtein: 29.7g
Nutritional information has been calculated with low fat cottage cheese (2% milk fat) and is an estimation only.