These Chicken Pesto Stuffed Shells are filled with creamy cheese, juicy chicken, mushrooms, and spinach and smothered in flavorful pesto.
This is a warm, filling, easy dinner idea that is sure to please your whole family.
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Why You Will Love This Recipe
- This baked pasta dish is easy to prep ahead of time. Turning a little bit of weekend work into an easy weeknight dinner.
- They also freeze really well. Easily split the stuffed shells into two smaller pans eating one for dinner and freezing the second pan for a later date.
- These cheese-stuffed shells are 100% comfort food, making them a delicious, warm, filling meal for a cold winter's evening.
- Mushrooms: Choose your favorite mushroom. You can use a standard white or brown mushroom or go for something special like a shitake or baby bella mushroom. If they are available morrel mushrooms would taste amazing.
- Spinach: I prefer to use fresh spinach but you could also substitute thawed and well-drained frozen spinach. If using frozen spinach there is no need to saute it. Simply add it at the same time as you add the cheese.
- Chicken: This is a great way to use up leftover chicken. Shredding a prepared rotisserie chicken from your local grocery store is also a great time saver. Remember to save the bones to make this delicious chicken stock. If cooking chicken specifically for this recipe 2 cups of shredded chicken is typically equal to one large chicken breast.
- Jumbo Pasta Shells: Undercook the shells slightly so they don't become mushy while the stuffed shells bake. I usually boil my shells for ten minutes. Prepare more shells than the recipe calls for, some of them will inevitably tear. After boiling the shells and straining them run them under some cool water to prevent sticking and make them easier to handle.
- Ricotta Cheese: Ricotta cheese is smooth with a slightly grainy texture. Whole milk ricotta works best in stuffed shells. If you don't have or don't like ricotta cheese, cottage cheese makes a great substitute.
- Mozzarella Cheese: Mozzarella has a mild delicate flavor and becomes wonderfully stringing when it melts.
- Parmesan Cheese: I think freshly grated parmesan cheese tastes the best. Plus you get a pretty good arm workout. You could also use the pre-shredded parmesan cheese found in a plastic tub with the rest of the shredded cheese. Avoid parmesan cheese found in the green cardboard container. It doesn't melt properly.
- Cream Cheese: Cream cheese adds a creamy tang to the cheesy filling.
- Egg: The egg helps to bind the filling together.
- Pesto: Use your favorite store-bought pesto or double my recipe for spinach pesto.
- Make this dish vegetarian by swapping out the chicken for additional sauteed vegetables like zucchini and eggplant.
- Substitute cooked cannelloni in place of the cooked jumbo shells.
- Hate stuffing pasta? Turn this into a layered pasta casserole. Start with a layer of cooked pasta then layer on top the chicken, veggie, and cheese mixture, finishing with a layer of pesto and reserved mozzarella cheese.
- This recipe is baked in a 9x13 pan but I often divide it into two 9x9 baking dishes and bake one for dinner and freeze the second one for later.
Move an oven rack to the top position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the pasta shells for 10 minutes until they are al dente which means they have softened but still have a bit of chew. Not overcooking the pasta shells ensures they will not fall apart after they have baked.
Drain the pasta and rinse it under cool water to keep them from sticking together.
While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan or dutch oven. Saute the mushrooms for about 5 minutes until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and saute for an additional minute. Add the spinach one handful at a time waiting for each handful to wilt before adding more. Remove the pan from the heat.
Allow the vegetable mixture to cool slightly before stirring in the chicken, 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, cream cheese, egg, salt, and pepper.
Place a little of the pesto in the bottom of a 9x13 pan to prevent the shells from sticking.
Use a spoon to fill the shells with the chicken mixture. Place the individual shells in the pan seam side up.
Top the shells with the rest of the pesto sauce and the remaining mozzarella cheese.
Cover the pan loosely with foil and bake shells for 35 minutes. Remove the foil and broil the top until the cheese is bubbly and golden brown. This should take 1-2 minutes. Watch carefully to avoid burning the cheese.
Allow the shells to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before enjoying their cheesey goodness.
This yummy dinner can be prepared a couple of days in advance. Make them over the weekend and bake them when you’re ready to serve.
Assemble the stuffed shells according to the directions below. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
The day you want to bake the shells take them out of the refrigerator while you’re preheating the oven to 350 degrees Farenheight. Bake as directed in the recipe below.
My favorite way to serve these stuffed shells is alongside a crisp side salad and with a piece of crunchy cheesy garlic bread to soak up the extra sauce.
- Cook a few extra shells. This way you will have a few extra since some of the shells might break while they cook.
- Don’t overcook the pasta. To prevent mushy shells, we want the shells pliable but not fully cooked. I usually boil my shells for 10 minutes. The pasta will finish cooking in the oven.
- Rinse the shells with cold water after boiling them. This prevents them from sticking to each other. Be sure to drain them well so you’re not adding excess moisture to the dish.
- When assembling, start with a layer of sauce to prevent the first layer of pasta from sticking to the pan.
How to Store Leftovers
Cooked stuffed shells will keep stored in an airtight container in the fridge for at least 5 days. Reheat in the microwave, or warm the whole casserole (covered with foil) in the oven at 350°F until bubbly again.
I do not recommend freezing fully cooked stuffed shells. Many times fully cooked pasta becomes mushy when it is frozen and thawed.
How to Freeze
Stuffed shells is one of my favorite freezer meals. Once assembled, cover the shells with a layer of plastic wrap and then a layer of foil. Label with the contents, date, and reheating instructions. Freeze stuffed shells for up to three months.
How to Cook Frozen Stuffed Shells
You have two options for cooking frozen stuffed shells:
- Allow the stuffed shells to thaw in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Remove the foil and plastic wrap. Recover with the foil and bake as directed.
- You can also bake stuffed shells straight from the freezer, but plan to double the baking time. Remember to remove the foil and plastic wrap and then recover with the foil.
More Dinner Recipes to Try
Thanks for Reading!
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