My family comes from Calabria, so a lot of the things we do seem very strange to the Tuscans in my adopted home. It sounds ridiculous, right? After all, Italy is Italy. Or at least that was what I thought when I first moved over.
Then I attended the funeral of my husband’s uncle and was mortified when Giulio tried to go to church in jeans. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me?” I shrieked. “You wear black to funerals. Everybody knows that.” As it turns out, not in Tuscany. I brow beat my beloved into wearing a black suit and tie, but everyone else was at the church in jeans, jumpers and hats… HATS!!
It took me a while to realize that Tuscans are the Anglo-Saxons of Italy. It sounds cruel and I’m generalising, I know, but they aren’t particularly family orientated (hence the no black) or super religious. They tend not to come from the big families we know and love from Italian sitcoms and they definitely don’t get together to make sauce and salami. Or shell shaped stuffed pasta.
My very retro Calabrian grandmother used to turn up at every birthday/baptism/confirmation/celebration with a huge tray of stuffed pasta shells. We call them conchiglie ripiene (conchiglie is literally Italian for shells). She could whip up a batch of these with her signature three meat filling in a morning and still have time to set her hair with tinted mousse and don all her special occasion jewellery.
So when I mentioned over the weekend that I wanted to make stuffed pasta shells, Giulio laughed so hard, he almost fell off his chair. I was disgusted to discover they are passé in modern Italy. I sulked. After all, what was the point of living in Italy if I couldn’t buy Italian products? So I huffed and I puffed and grumbled until I found an alternative, these lumacone.
Lumacone means big snail and these hollow tubes are I guess the modern version of my conchiglie or at least the Tuscan version… Here they stuff them with ricotta cheese and spinach before baking in a béchamel sauce. They’re creamy, cheesy and delicious, but mine are better.
Nonna’s aforementioned three meat filling is the clincher for me. No one else I know makes it. It’s like the Turduken of fillings. Chicken adds a sweetness, pork fattiness and beef the earthiness you associate with lasagna or stuffed cannelloni. The mince is heavily flavoured with parsley for freshness and garlic for bite. It is quite simply the most glorious mince you will have ever tried and I could (and have) eaten it by the spoonful.
Getting the mince into these shells is a bit of a challenge. When I was a kid, it was my job. My grandmother looks all sweet, but she is a devil in the kitchen and had no shame in telling her 9-year-old granddaughter she was doing a rubbish job. Be sure to let the mince cool before spooning it in or your pasta can go a bit mushy. The other trick with any baked pasta dish is to pre-cook your pasta until it’s just al dente. Make sure you spoon plenty of sauce onto the base of your baking dish before you layer in your shells/snails/lumacone/lasagna sheets/cannelloni. Without it, your pasta won’t cook properly and will probably be a little raw when you bite in.
These are great reheated the next day in the oven or (sharp intake of breath) microwave. It’s a myth that Italians detest microwaves. Most locals I know have gigantic ones.
Conchiglie ripiene (stuffed pasta shells)
500g mixed veal, pork and chicken mince
1⁄2 medium brown onion, finely chopped 1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
1 tablespoon finely chopped at leaf parsley
1 egg, lightly beaten
400g dried conchiglie, lumacone or cannelloni tubes
500ml tomato puree
1⁄2 medium brown onion extra, finely chopped
1 clove garlic extra, crushed
2-3 basil leaves, left whole
1 tablespoon finely grated parmesan, extra
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large non- stick frying pan over medium heat. Add the mince and cook, stirring, until brown. Add the onion and garlic, season with salt and pepper and cook until the liquid has evaporated. Remove the mince from the pan, but reserve the pan and its juices for the tomato sauce.
Place the parmesan, parsley and beaten egg in a bowl with the mince and mix to combine.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water with a drizzle of olive oil for 10-12 minutes or until al dente. Drain and cool under cold running water.
To make the tomato sauce, heat the same frying pan you used for your mince over medium heat. Add the tomato puree, extra onion and garlic, and basil and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes or until thick. Season.
Preheat oven to 180°C. Use a teaspoon to fill your pasta shells. Spread a few tablespoons of sauce over the base of a 3-litre-capacity ovenproof dish and top with the pasta. Top with the remaining sauce and finely grated parmesan. Cook covered in the oven for 20 minutes or until golden. Serves 4-6.
Even though I couldn’t find conchiglie, these were still as delicious as I remember!