Next to dishes like lasagna, macaroni and cheese, and baked ziti, stuffed shells sometimes get overlooked in terms of pasta casseroles. Personally, I love them, but haven’t indulged in years! They are easy to make, easy to portion, and beautiful too. I decided my stuffed shells dry spell was coming to an end, stat.
In the past I’ve indulged in meat-stuffed and ricotta-stuffed varieties, and even once made a goat cheese-stuffed shells dish with ratatouille. Last year when I reviewed Sunday Casseroles, I was wowed by a recipe for Crab-Stuffed Pasta Shells with Orange-Scented Tomato Sauce, and added it to my growing to do list. This was the perfect opportunity to try them out!
Let’s start with the sauce. It’s a basic tomato sauce that begins with onion, carrots, garlic, and basil. It also includes a healthy amount of chicken broth or stock (a first I’ve seen in tomato sauce) and orange zest to brighten it up. After simmering, it’s pureed until smooth, yielding a bright and light tomato sauce with a bit of warmth from chili flakes, and an unexpected freshness and zing from the orange zest.
The pasta shells themselves are stuffed with a mixture reminiscent of crab cakes. I was worried that the crabmeat flavor would get lost in the midst of all the other filling ingredients, but it still shines through beautifully. Along with some sauteed scallions, diced celery, and more basil, we also have the inclusion of fresh bread crumbs (I use some excellent quality crumbs I purchase from a local bakery and store in my freezer), lemon juice and zest, orange zest, and egg to hold it all together.
I’m really impressed not only by how the crab still shines even when it’s not the dominant ingredient in the filling, but also by the freshness of the citrus. The orange and lemon really lighten up the dish and give it a summery feel, even though these shells can easily be made year round because they utilize canned tomatoes in the sauce.
Although I’ve seen recipes before for seafood stuffed pasta shells, none of them use a healthy amount of bread crumbs in the filling. It’s definitely a cheaper filler than using all seafood, but it offers a very crab cake type of flavor to the filling which is really delicious. I liken this dish to crab cakes meet pasta, slathered with a light and delicate tomato sauce that really compliments the crab perfectly.
Although crabmeat can cost you a pretty penny, you definitely don’t need to acquire the most expensive variety for this recipe, especially since there’s so much going on in the dish that you won’t necessarily notice if it’s $25 crab versus $15 crab. I still hesitate to purchase canned crabmeat if I can help it, although there are some wonderful options out there. Just make sure to read the label and purchase the best you can afford.
The crabmeat I used was purchased from my local Whole Foods. They offered a few different varieties from the same manufacturer sold in sealed clear plastic tubs as opposed to cans. All containers weighing 8-ounces, they ranged from $21.99 for the jumbo lump to $15.99 for standard lump, and finally $13.99 for backfin. I compared the lump to the backfin and found that the pieces were actually quite similar in size, and didn’t really justify my spending a little extra for lump, especially if it was getting mixed in with a bunch of other ingredients and stuffed into pasta shells.
I went with the cheaper backfin, which was still high quality and not canned, and was very pleased with my choice. The crab pieces were still quite large and definitely stood out when enjoying the shells. I didn’t lose anything in flavor or texture by selecting the less expensive option.
I absolutely love these Crab-Stuffed Pasta Shells, and plan to make them again with the remaining half box of shells leftover from making this dish. I definitely suggest boiling a few extra shells in case any of them fall apart on you. With that said, I still have plenty to make this dish again whenever the craving hits! It was easy to make and brought a bit of decadence to what is typically a pretty standard comfort food pasta casserole.
Crab-Stuffed Pasta Shells with Orange-Scented Tomato Sauce
(From Sunday Casseroles)
Orange-Scented Tomato Sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup (95 g) chopped onion
1/3 cup (45 g) chopped carrot
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
Scant 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained well
1 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (or homemade stock)
2 teaspoons orange zest
Generous pinch of sugar, plus more if needed
Crab-Stuffed Pasta Shells:
16 large pasta shells (2 to 2 1/2 inches) (I suggest boiling about 18 to 20 just in case any of them break when boiling–just boil about half a 12 ounce package, or double this recipe and use the entire package!)
5 tablespoons (70 g) unsalted butter
1 cup (90 g) chopped green onions
1/3 cup (40 g) finely chopped celery
2 1/2 cups (140 g) fresh bread crumbs, preferably made from sourdough bread (I used high quality bread crumbs purchased from a local bakery)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (15 g) chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, plus 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (I used the juice of an entire half lemon, which was about 2 tablespoons or so, along with the lemon zest)
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest
8 ounces (225 g) fresh crabmeat
2 large eggs, beaten well
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Generously oil a 9-by-13-inch or another shallow 3-quart baking dish.
For the Orange-Scented Tomato Sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy frying pan (with a lid) (I actually used a medium saucepan instead) over medium heat. When hot, add the onion and carrot and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are slightly softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the basil, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and the red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes more. Stir in the tomatoes, chicken broth, orange zest, and sugar.
Bring the mixture to a simmer, reduce the heat, and cover. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Season the sauce with more salt and even an additional pinch of sugar if needed. Puree the sauce in a food processor, blender, or food mill, and return to the pan. You should have about 3 cups (I had 3 1/2 cups). The sauce can be prepared 2 days ahead; cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat over medium heat.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, generously salt and add the pasta shells. Cook until quite tender, 15 to 20 minutes–these shells often take longer than the package directions suggest (my package said 10 minutes and I cooked them for 12, they were still quite al dente, but softened a bit more in the oven; I wouldn’t overcook them at this point as the original recipe suggests because they will be more likely to fall apart, and besides, they will cook more in the oven bathed in sauce). Drain in a colander, and pad dry with a clean kitchen towel (I drained them individually with a slotted spoon and removed them to my work area to stuff).
In a medium frying pan over medium heat, melt 4 tablespoons (55 g) of the butter until hot. Add the green onions and celery and cook, stirring, until just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the bread crumbs and stir for 1 minute more to moisten. Remove the frying pan from the heat and stir in half the basil, the lemon juice, lemon zest, and orange zest. Mix well and gently mix in the crabmeat (after picking through for shells) 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the eggs. Fill the shells generously with the crab mixture (I actually filled 17 shells instead of 16, but could have packed in the filling a bit more to yield the original 16–you can really stuff these quite generously and go back to add more to shells that aren’t too full if you find you have extra filling at the end). The shells can be prepared up to this point 6 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.
Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Ladle half of the sauce on the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Place the shells in the dish and brush them lightly with the melted butter to keep them from drying out. Nap the center of each pasta shell with some of the remaining sauce (I ended up with a little extra sauce, but saved it to remoisten the leftover shells when I reheated a couple portions for dinner the following day).
Bake, uncovered, until the shells are hot, 30 to 35 minutes, or longer if they have been refrigerated. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the remaining basil before serving.