Butternut squash and ricotta stuffed shells with garlic béchamel

I cannot believe this is my first stuffed shells recipe on here. They have been a favorite dish of mine since I was really little. I grew up having the standard Barilla version of ricotta, mozzarella, and marinara sauce all the time, and it was one of my brothers' and my favorite dinners. It still is! I put it in the same category as lasagna: my ideal comfort foods category, except it's even easier to throw together. 

Sometime in the last month, I got it in my head that I wanted to make a butternut squash version, and upon further thought, I came to the conclusion that it should be with a béchamel sauce instead of a traditional red sauce. And guys, I gotta say - it's one of the better decisions I've made in the last 5-10 years. These tasted unbelievably decadent and delicious for dinner on a Sunday after plugging away at the kitchen renovation in our new house, and the best part, truly, was having killer leftovers for the days that followed.

Butternut squash stuffed shells with garlic béchamel

Yields 20 shells, or about 5-6 servings
1¼ cup whole milk ricotta
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, divided
1½ cups (or about 8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
1¼ cup roasted and mashed butternut squash
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
About 1½ to 2 tsp sea salt, divided, to taste
Freshly cracked black pepper
3 cups whole milk
½ box jumbo shells (this recipe is for 20 shells)
4 T butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 T flour
A couple pinches of nutmeg
3 sage leaves, thinly sliced or chopped

This recipe assumes you already have roasted butternut squash on hand - if not, peel and slice a butternut squash into cubes, toss with olive oil and a little salt, spread out on a baking sheet, and roast at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or so until fork tender. Mash it and store in fridge until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the center of the oven.

In a medium bowl, mix together the ricotta, ½ cup Parmesan, ½ cup mozzarella, butternut squash, thyme, 1 tsp salt, and pepper. Set aside.

In a saucepan, heat milk up over medium to medium-low heat until just before boiling, and at the same time, boil water in a large pot to cook noodles until al dente (drain and set aside when they’re done).

Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook for a minute, stirring until fragrant. Sprinkle in flour, and stir until mixture is smooth. Up the heat to medium, and then cook, stirring often, until mixture gets a bit more brown in color. This took about 7-8 minutes for me, but it could take less - do not burn. Then, ladle in the hot milk about 1 cup at a time, and whisking after each addition until incorporated. Bring mixture to a very slow boil, and whisk often for about 8-10 minutes, until béchamel sauce has thickened. Remove from heat, and sprinkle in about ¾ tsp salt (or more to taste), as well as a couple pinches of nutmeg.

Spread a cup or so of the béchamel in the bottom of a greased 9x13 inch baking dish. Then stuff each shell with a large spoonful of the cheese-squash mixture, and arrange in rows in baking dish. Pour the remaining béchamel sauce over the shells. Then sprinkle with remaining ¾ cup shredded mozzarella and ½ cup Parmesan. Finish with a good amount of freshly cracked black pepper.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until bubbling. Then sprinkle chopped sage leaves over the top, and turn the heat to High Broil for 4-5 minutes, watching carefully, to crisp up the cheesy top a bit.

Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes or so before serving.

PS: these reheat incredibly well and therefore make for great leftovers