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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Spring Shells and Cheese

I try to shy away from recipes that are season-specific because I try (though not very hard lately) to eat locally. That's a hard feat in New England during the winter as you'll quickly turn into a hubbard squash or a turnip. Recipes that call for things like asparagus or fiddleheads are generally a no as I prefer to eat them in season. But sometimes, to avoid a rut, you have to make an exception.

This recipe for Spring Shells and Cheese from the April 2010 Food Network Magazine kept leaping out at me when I'd peruse my collection. I put it into a small pile as as a Meatless Monday possibility and my husband made the final choice. I could finally put my curiosity to rest.

Spring Shells and Cheese

2 lbs medium zucchini
Kosher salt
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp nutmeg (freshly ground preferred)
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
6 cups whole milk
1 tsp dried thyme leaves or 4 sprigs fresh thyme
3 bay leaves
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 lb medium pasta shells
4 shallots, minced
2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
4 oz parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
4 oz gruyère cheese, grated (about 1 1/4 cups)
4 oz baby spinach

1. Grate the zucchini into a colander using the large holes of a box grater. Toss with 1 tbsp salt, then place in the sink to drain, about 15 minutes. Squeeze out excess liquid.

2. Meanwhile, melt 4 tbsp butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, nutmeg, cayenne, 2 tsp salt, and black pepper to taste and mix with a wooden spoon to make a paste. Cook, stirring, until the paste puffs slightly, about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the milk, then add the thyme, bay leaves and lemon zest and bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened slightly, about 25 minutes. Strain into a bowl, discard the herbs.

3. Meanwhile, position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and add to the sauce.

4. Melt the remaining 4 tbsp butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring, until almost tender, about 4 minutes. Add the zucchini mixture to the pasta along with the egg yolks and all but 3 tbsp of both cheeses; stir to combine, then add spinach.

5. Transfer the mixture to a 9 x 13" baking dish and sprinkle with the reserved cheeses. Bake until browned on top and heated through, 25 to 30 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

The Verdict: If you're looking for yellow mac and cheese, this ain't it. But if you're looking for pasta that's creamy with delicate cheese, vegetable and herb flavors, you've found your match.
This is delicious. While very rich, it's not overpowering with a cloyingly fat taste. I also loved the amount of vegetable; some of them hidden. When my son did his, "I no like green," I smiled slyly while telling him to pick it out. He didn't realize there were still gobs of zucchini and shallots on his plate.

I bought a quart of whole milk to make this with as a) I didn't write down the amount I needed before visiting the supermarket and b) it wouldn't have mattered anyway as I suck at all things math and need a reminder that one quart equals 4 cups. And so, my recipe was made with (take a wild guess) four cups of whole milk and two of 1%. Didn't seem to make a bit of difference. With that spirit, I'm sure that there's a way to cut back on the shocking amount of fat in this dish.
Also, there are a lot of steps to making this before you're left with a giant pan of ooey-gooey goodness. I made this on a Sunday afternoon and kept the reserved cheese to sprinkle on top until the last minute when I put it in the oven on Monday night. So unless you have all the time in the world, leave this for when you have lots of time on your hands.
A great dish. Springtime or not.

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