Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells

For someone who loves food, and enjoys cheese, and pork, and enrichment of flavors often thanks to fat, trying to make a dish that does not contain much fat and is not too cheesy and is vegetarian but tastes good is an interesting challenge in trying to please a fussy vegetarian palate instead of what I would personally pick.

I had a craving for fresh ricotta and decided to make stuffed shells for dinner. In order to make it vegetarian and not “overloaded” with cheese (I love it with multiple kinds of cheese myself) or too rich, I didn’t follow any recipe that called for sausage or egg, and only used the ricotta, which turns out is most of them. So I decided to wing it. To add more flavor rather then just ricotta in shells, I decided to use butternut squash and baby zucchini, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh chopped sage and dill from the herb garden.

Ingredients: (enough for 4 people as a main dish, 6 as a side)

  • 1 gallon of whole milk. It needs to be not be ultra-pasteurized
  • 1 pint of buttermilk
  • 1 box of large shell pasta
  • 2.5 cups of cubed butternut squash
  • 5 baby zucchini, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons of sage, chopped. As an optional step you can brown the sage with butter first for extra flavor
  • One jar of marinara sauce of your choice
  • 2 tablespoons of dill
  • 1 pint of heirloom cherry tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup of Italian seasoned breadcrumbs or parmesan cheese as topping


It is important that you don’t use Ultra-Pasteurized milk, because it does not have the important calcium chloride which is needed for coagulation and curds (the pasteurization process removes calcium). Whole milk is better because it will also taste richer, as the flavor of the cheese is related to the amount of butterfat in the milk.

  1. First, I heated up the gallon of whole milk and a pint of buttermilk under medium heat. I kept stirring with a wooden spoon to make sure none burned at the bottom and no skin would form at the top, and would also monitor the temperature once in a while. It only needs to reach 175 degrees Farenheit. As it heats up, you can watch the curdles start to form, and the white curds begin to separate from the yellowish liquid whey.
    Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells
  2. Once it reaches the desired temperature, take it immediately off the heat, and using a slotted spoon, I started moving the curds onto a strainer that had cheesecloth sitting on another pot to drain more whey. This whole first step maybe took 20 minutes, and then let the whey drain for another 15 minutes or so.
  3. As it is draining, at the same time boil another pot of water in which I placed 25 shells, cooked al dente, and then drained them and quickly ran some cold water on them.
    Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells
  4. As I was waiting for the ricotta and whey to drain some more, I steamed some cubed butternut squash (a little more then 2.5 cups probably once cubed) and five baby zucchini, which I then chopped up, along with the sage (maybe 3 tablespoons chopped). Mix these all together. If I had any lemon juice I might have added some in, but unfortunately someone drank it all. Something I thought of afterwards is that I could have browned the sage in a little bit of butter first- I love browned butter sage as it is a little crunchy. I restrained from adding spice this time because I wanted to let the flavors of the vegetables shine.
    Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells
  5. Finally, the assembly time. While pre-heating the oven to 350 F, I first poured some basil marinara (from a jar thanks to Trader Joe’s) onto a 9×13 baking dish. Then, I would basically put a tablespoon of the ricotta/vegetable mixture into each shell, and line them up. The fact that after they were cooked I had immediately ran cold over them and separated each kept every shell intact.
  6. After they were all filled, I topped the whole dish with the remaining sauce. Next, sprinkle the dill (I used about 2 tablespoons), and this is when I added the heirloom tomatoes basically between every shell- the ones I had were all about cherry tomato size.
  7. Sprinkle some Italian seasoned breadcrumbs instead of more cheese (which again, would be my preference- that way it gets all bubbly crunchy with a bit of burnt parmesan cheese), and bake in the oven for about 40 minutes.

Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta ShellsFresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells  Fresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta ShellsFresh Ricotta, butternut squash, baby zucchini in Pasta Shells

Seriously, making ricotta is so easy, and you get so much more yield for the same dollar then if you bought a container (maybe 25 oz, instead of the packaged 15 oz). And it tastes so much better, perhaps like me you will be ruined and no longer like what it tastes like coming from a container.

After all this, the fussy vegetarian pulled out nutritional yeast in order to add a bit more nutty cheesy flavor! What a loser.  ^_^ I had to say though, overall the dish ended up tasting pretty good and I didn’t miss the other cheeses or egg that other stuffed shell recipes use, and I think these were better veggies then spinach as stuffing- I prefer spinach in pasta with simpler sauces so you can taste the spinach instead of just the texture which gets overwhelmed by tangy marinara. Also the bursts of flavor and juice from the heirloom tomatoes are always awesome.

And, there is still leftover ricotta so I can use it inside endive leaves, or as topping on slow-roasted roma tomatoes with a bit of olive oil and dot or so of aged balsamic, the next couple days. Great for some cooler temperature snacks as the weather heats up as summer if arriving in Portland this week with a return to 80 degrees (only the 2nd time this year so far), and summer officially starts tomorrow.



  1. […] of the cream and lemon juice/vinegar as your acid ,just use buttermilk instead like when I made ricotta for Pasta Shells with squash and zucchini. Either way it yields a better value if I make it myself than buy it from the store, on top of the […]

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