by Linda Marrone
My friend Paula Tlachacs' husband, Mike, lost his battle with cancer. I had been making chicken soup to send over to him for a while, and even showed Paula how to make it. For me and probably many of us, sending food over to someone when you want to help, but don't know what to do, is probably just as therapeutic for us as it is comforting to them.
Food plays an important of our daily lives, but it takes on an elevated meaning when it comes to celebrations. Whether we are celebrating a birthday, wedding, an anniversary or a celebration of life, it has the common ground to bring us together. In happy times and sad, it's good to eat. To me, it reminds us that life does go on, and that dying is a part of living.
I helped cater the food at the Tlachacs' celebration of Mike's life. They rented a banquet room at the Plaza Hotel, and we had tables and chairs set up for about 85. The staff was absolutely wonderful, and they were all so helpful with set-up and cleanup. Dwight Millard and his son Michael should be proud of the great job their staff put forth. We squeezed in about 180 people coming and going and managed not to run out of food.
It was a sad day for Paula and family, but they made it through with the love and support of all their family and friends. Isn't that what life is all about?
We made more than 250 stuffed pasta shells. When we had the restaurant, it was one of my standard dishes for catered weddings and funerals. The shells can be made ahead and baked the day you need them, and then all you have to do is keep them warm.
These large stuffed shells are sort of like a meatless lasagna, but much easier to serve because they can be served individual and don't have to be cut like lasagna. The very best ricotta cheese to use for these is Polly-O, available from the Sausage Factory in 5-pound containers. If you make your own spaghetti sauce that would be great, but if not, a good bottled sauce would be fine.
Buy shells that are made in Italy. They hold up better and do not break apart when cooking and stuffing.
You can also use manicotti, but you need a pastry bag to stuff them. If you make you own pasta dough, cut the dough in squares and put the filling down the middle and roll them up with the seam-side down in your pan. Some restaurants even use crepes as holders for the filling.
As you can see there are lots of options. This recipe is just a guideline and can be adjusted for the size container of ricotta you buy. Most grocery stores sell the cheese in 15-ounce or 2-pound containers.
MARY MARRONE'S LARGE STUFFED SHELLS
1 box of large shells (Barilla or Ronzoni)
1 container of ricotta cheese
2 boxes of frozen spinach, thawed
1 bunch of fresh basil, chopped
1 cup of fresh grated Parmesan
Grated mozzarella for top
Cook shells, rinse with cold water, and drain. Then toss shells with oil to prevent sticking. Squeeze all water out of thawed spinach. Put your ricotta cheese in a large bowl; add spinach, chopped basil and Parmesan. Mix well. Put some sauce in the bottom of your baking pan then to use a spoon to stuff the shells and put in the pan. Pour the remainder of the sauce over the top of the shells, making sure they are all covered. You can refrigerate them at this point or bake them in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour until shells are bubbling hot. Add the grated mozzarella cheese and bake 10 minutes more. You can make the shells and freeze them, but freeze them without the sauce.
Linda Marrone has lived in Carson City since 1973, and with her husband, Ralph, formerly operated Marrone's Restaurant in Carson City and Somethin's Cookin' Catering.