Butternut Squash & Spinach Stuffed Shells with Lemon Sage Butter Sauce
This past summer, we moved our garden & really expanded it. Our plan was to have tons of our favorite veggies growing. I planted cucumbers, 50 million different varieties of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, squash, etc. I planted a bunch of yellow squash, because that’s my ultimate favorite. I dreamed of fried squash & squash casserole galore. Sadly, the people who packaged the seeds at the seed company had different plans… Those big meanies 😉
As I watched my squash plants grow from tiny seedlings on up, my anticipation of my favorite squash foods was growing. That was, until, I noticed that what should have been tiny yellow crookneck squash was in fact tiny orange-ish butternut squash. Every. single. plant. You can’t even begin to imagine my disappointment. I don’t even think that disappointment even covers it. It was a stinkin’ tragedy I tell you! In that instant, I literally felt like crying. Ok, so maybe I did cry… a little. Don’t judge.
Part of me hoped that somehow these little orange butternuts were going to miraculously turn into my beloved yellow squash… with the adorable crooked little necks. But no – that didn’t happen. Boo.
So, I was forced to make do – purchasing my yellow squash at the farmer’s market (instead of being the ‘farmer’ myself – boo again) & figuring out what to do with this so called ‘winter squash’ that was hereby growing in my Southern garden in the summer. I harvested my butternut squash, and tried to choke back the tears as every single supposed yellow squash plant was bearing nothing of the sort. I set to my kitchen, and piddled around with it to see what I could come up with. I remember seeing a dish in a magazine somewhere along my life that made them into a pasta dish – but I couldn’t remember where. So, I decided to wing it – just add a little of this & that and see where it led me.
Where it led me was to the trash can to throw away the tissues that I had been cradling to my chest since I found out my yellow squash wasn’t making an appearance in my garden. Not because I fell out in love with it at all – but because I fell so deeply in love with this dish! It did take me a couple of times to ‘perfect’ it so to speak, but these butternut squash stuffed shells are quite frankly one of the best dishes I’ve ever put on the table. Very different from the meals I usually make, but magnificent none the less! My whole family just raved & raved about it – and almost got into a wrestling match any leftovers.
It was loved so much, that I went back & fine tuned the recipe a little more to where it makes enough for dinner AND enough to go in the freezer for a whole other meal in the future. They freeze beautifully! And, I absolutely love the concept of cooking once & eating twice. It just makes this busy mom’s life so much easier! Plus, if you’re only cooking for 2 – you could freeze this in even smaller batches making a whole bunch of meals just waiting for you in the freezer.
You’re in – right? Well, come follow along! Here’s what you need:
First things first – we need to take care of that butternut squash. One large one will do. Peel the skin off the outside, and begin chopping it into small pieces. The top narrower half won’t have seeds, but once you get to the bottom – there will be some seeds in there. Once I get to that point, I slice those parts into 3/4″ thick cylinders & just slice off the ends – aka ‘the good portions’…. like so.
Place your chopped butternut squash into a roasting pan, and sprinkle with salt & pepper.
Cover with aluminum foil, & bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes.
Remove from the oven & let cool to lukewarm. You can also make this part a day in advance & refrigerate overnight… then pick up with the next part the following day.
Either with a potato masher, fork, blender, or food processor – puree your roasted butternut squash. The first time I tried creating this dish, I left the butternut squash in diced portions – and while the flavor was still really good… the butternut chunk texture kind of threw off the entire dish. So, definitely puree (or mash) it!
Quickly prepare the spinach. Take a heaping 1 cup of frozen chopped spinach, & place in a microwavable bowl. Add a splash of water & microwave for 2 minutes. Let cool slightly, & then squeeze out any excess water. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix together the pureed butternut squash, minced garlic, the chopped spinach, 2 cups of ricotta cheese, 4 cups mozzarella cheese, 3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 3 eggs, the zest of 2 lemons, & salt and pepper to taste.
Spray a 9×13 dish wish cooking spray, and begin filling your cooked jumbo pasta shells with the pasta filling. Place half of the shells into the baking dish, cover with aluminum foil, & bake on 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Place the other half of your shells in a baking dish or muffin tin (I use a square muffin tin) and place them in the freezer while the other ones are baking. I’ll continue with the freezer preparation instruction at the bottom of this post.
When there is about 15 minutes left on the timer for the shells, then begin making your lemon sage butter sauce.
Melt 2 sticks of butter in a saute pan on medium heat until golden brown & bubbly. Add 1/4 oz of sage leaves (about 16-20 sage leaves) into the butter – cook until slightly crisp.
Turn off the heat. Squeeze in the juice from the 2 lemons you zested previously. Stir in 2 tablespoons of cold butter.
Cool until warm, but not hot.
You should be taking the stuffed shells out of the oven by now. Sprinkle the shells with the remaining 1/4 cup of shredded Parmesan cheese & pop them back into the oven until the cheese is melted. It should only take a couple of minutes.
Once the cheese is melted, remove from the oven & drizzle half of the lemon sage butter sauce on top.
You should be on the brim of needing a bib from all the salivation you’re experiencing at this point 😉
Serve hot & enjoy. This dish will rock your socks off. Even if you’re already barefooted 😀
Freezer instructions to follow.
Now, for the freezer part!
Once your shells are frozen on the baking sheet or muffin tin, remove them & place them in a large freezer safe plastic bag. You could also use a freezer safe baking dish. Then, pour the other half of the lemon sage butter sauce into a resealable freezer safe container.
To prepare after freezing, let thaw overnight in the fridge – or place both components in the fridge the morning you wish to make this. You could also use the defrost setting on your microwave in a pinch. Prepare the shells the same way you would usually – by covering the dish with aluminum foil & baking at 350 for 30 minutes. If the shells are still a little bit frozen, you may need to add 10-15 minutes to the cook time.
Warm your sauce on low in a small saucepan. Pour on top of the cooked shells.
- 1 box jumbo pasta shells – cooked to package instructions
- 1 large butternut squash, peeled & chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 heaping cup frozen spinach
- 3 eggs
- 2 cups of ricotta cheese
- 4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- ¾ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- the zest from 2 lemons (reserve the lemons for juice for the sauce)
- salt & pepper to taste
- 2 sticks + 2 tablespoons butter
- ¼ oz sage leaves (16-20 leaves)
- the juice from 2 lemons (use the ones you zested in the pasta)
- ¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Place the peeled & chopped butternut squash in a 9×13 baking dish, season with salt & pepper, cover with foil, & bake for 20-25 minutes. Cool til warm. Using a potato masher or food processor – mash or puree the butternut squash.
- Lower the heat on your oven to 350 degrees. Place the frozen spinach in a microwave safe bowl, & add a splash of water. Microwave for 2 minutes. Cool slightly, and then squeeze any liquid from the spinach.
- In a large bowl, mix together the pureed butternut squash, minced garlic, cooked & squeezed spinach, eggs, ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, ¾ cup Parmesan cheese, the zest from 2 lemons, & salt and pepper to taste. Fill the cooked jumbo shells with the mixture. Place half of the shells in a 9×13 baking dish sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Refer to the bottom section for directions for freezing the other half.
- Cover the dish with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make your sauce. Melt 2 sticks of butter in a skillet over medium heat until brown & bubbly. Add in the sage leaves, & cook until slightly crisp. Turn off the heat, & squeeze in the juice of 2 lemons. Stir in 2 tablespoons of butter. Cool til warm – not piping hot.
- When the shells come out of the oven, sprinkle with ¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese. Return to the oven for a few minutes until the cheese is melted. Spoon half of the lemon sage butter sauce on top.
Freeze the other half of the shells on a baking sheet or in a muffin til to hold upright for about 30 minutes, or until firm. Transfer to a freezer safe bag or baking sheet & store in the freezer for 3-6 months. Pour the other half of the sauce into a freezer safe container, and freeze along with the shells. The day you plan on making the meal in the freezer, let the shells & sauce thaw by placing them in the fridge either the night before or morning of. Cook the shells as you normally would in the recipe. Warm the sauce in a small saucepan on low heat until warmed. Spoon the sauce over the cooked shells.