Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tex-Mex Stuffed Shells

Sometimes I think my kitchen could double as an international foods emporium. On any given day, you are more likely to find Thai fish sauce or Indian curry powder than potato chips or hamburger patties. Despite a childhood spent in a suburb teeming with numerous chain restaurants but few authentic ethnic-food options, I am now something of an international foods magnet. I am drawn to trying new foods, spices, flavors, restaurants, and home recipes. In recent years I have developed a deep and abiding love of Japanese, Thai, Indian, Turkish, Greek, and Moroccan cuisines… just to name a few.

And while Mexican and Italian cuisines may not be the most exotic (since you can typically find them in most areas, suburbs and small towns included), they are two of the favorites in this newlywed household, at least when it comes to home cooking. Between me being a pasta addict (seriously, I need help) and Stan loving south of the border flavors, we prepare a lot of Italian and Mexican dishes, some more authentic than others.

This dish is a fusion of our favorites – traditional Mexican spices and flavors stuffed into warm, al dente pasta. When I came across the recipe at elly says opa! I knew it was one we had to try. While it clearly not an authentic Italian or Mexican recipe, it brings together many of the most delicious aspects of the two cuisines. Stan could not stop raving about the subtly spiced sauce, the rich but not heavy filling, and the overall combination of flavors. I agreed with him wholeheartedly, while also appreciating the recipe’s ease of preparation and the fact that it made more than enough for several meals’ worth of leftovers.

Tex-Mex Stuffed Shells
Adapted from elly says opa!

1 box (12 oz.) box large pasta shells

For Sauce:
1 large (29 oz) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For Filling:
1 T. canola oil (or other flavorless vegetable oil)
1 medium onion, diced
1 green pepper, finely chopped
1 lb. lean ground beef
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup water
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1 1/4 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. brown sugar
2 oz. cream cheese

1-2 cups Mexican cheese blend (or Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, etc.)

Optional garnish: sliced green onions

** For vegetarians, I think this recipe would work well with black beans in place of the ground beef. For those of you who do not eat beef, I think ground turkey would be a great substitution. If you try it with one of these (or any other) changes, let me know how you liked it! **

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cook pasta according to package directions, until just shy of al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside. (You want the shells to still be chewy and slightly undercooked since they will continue cooking in the oven.)

In a medium saucepan, combine all of the sauce ingredients (tomato sauce through bay leaf). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the filling.

In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the onion and green pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften.

Add the ground beef and garlic. Cook the ground beef until browned, breaking it up with a spatula or wooden spoon as it cooks. Drain off any accumulated fat, if necessary.

Add the water, cayenne pepper, cumin, chili powder, oregano, and brown sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer until most of the water has been absorbed. Taste again, and add additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Allow the beef mixture to cool slightly, then add the cream cheese. Stir to combine.

To assemble the stuffed shells, spread 2/3 cup of the sauce over the bottom of a large baking dish. (I ended up using one full 9x13 pan and most of a 9x9 pan.) Stuff each shell with a heaping tablespoon of the filling and place in the baking dish.

Pour the remaining sauce over the stuffed shells and then sprinkle with as much cheese as you like.

Cover the baking dish with foil and cook for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, and cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes, or until the shells are heated through and the cheese is melted and beginning to brown.

Serve hot, topped with sliced green onions, if desired.

Serves 6 to 8.


  1. Made these for Julie's birthday dinner and they were very tasty! Did all the chopping early and then just assembled the sauce, filling and pasta in no time. They pleased everyone. (I might increase the spicy seasonings a bit next time--was afraid to overdo them the first time.)

  2. So glad to hear you guys liked them! I have also thought about increasing the spice/heat level. If you do it, please let me know how they turn out!

  3. YUM!!! I made this for Nick and I last night... we loved it!! Plus we have lunches for the week! The sauce was so great- tasted like a yummy chili sauce. Also- I made this with 94%FF Ground Turkey and low fat cheese- the turkey was amazing with this, the cheese was good, but doesn't melt as well as full fat cheese, but we all know that. I'm so obsessed with your blog!! Thanks for all the great recipes!

  4. Heather - Thank you, and you're welcome!! I'm glad you guys loved this so much. I have been meaning to make it again forever. I'm glad you reminded me about it with your comment today! Also, thanks for letting us know it is just as tasty with ground turkey!

  5. We had these for dinner the other night.. I cheated and used store bought sauce but still came out delicious. Thanks for sharing the recipe.

  6. With an H. - Eh, cheating on the sauce is okay! Glad they turned out well!

  7. We had this for dinner tonight and it was really good. My son went back for thirds!

  8. Christina - So glad you liked it! Thanks for letting me know.

  9. Hey! Happy New Year!! I made these again last night, but subbed black beans for half the turkey. WOAH. It was amazing. The beans added a whole new flavor to the dish- even Nick preferred the half beans/half turkey, when he's an ALL meat kinda guy. Good Stuff. Hope 2012 is an awesome year for all!!

  10. Heather - Happy New Year to you too!! It's good to hear from you - and to hear your suggestion for this recipe. Adding black beans sounds delicious! I haven't made this in a long time. You've inspired me to try it your way soon :)



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