Broccoli and Asparagus Pasta Shells with Almond-Parmesan crust

 shellsbrocoli.jpg

I just love these «Mitsides» pasta shells. My mom always cooks them in the oven, mixed with milk, eggs and halloumi. You bite into them and because of their big size, all the cheesy goodness stuffed in there, just bursts into your mouth. Since it’s officially Spring, I cooked them with broccoli and lovely, bright, fresh asparagus. You can improvise of course. Anything green would be great, like green beans or peas but also prawns would make a lovely addition. It’s really easy to prepare. All you need to do is some time management. Blanch first the veggies, then cook the pasta, and while pasta cooks make the bechamel. I added lemon juice and the tangy flavour brings life to the dish. But what really makes you cry for more is the crunchy, nutty, cheesy topping; a mixture of breadcrumbs, almonds, parmesan cheese and lemon zest. It’s so crunchy and delicious, make sure you use your largest baking pan for this dish. More surface, more crunch!

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Ingredients

  • 1 medium brocoli (about 400 grams), cut into florets
  • 1 bunch asparagus (about 200 grams), cut into thirds
  • 3 Tbs lemon juice
  • 1/8 tsp chilli flakes
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 500 grams «Mitsides» Conchiglie Grandi (large shells)

 For the bechamel

  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2 Tbs unsalted butter (50 grams)
  • 2 Tbs all purpose flour
  • 2 ½ cups whole milk
  • ¼ cup cream
  • ½ tsp mustard powder
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • ¼ cup cream cheese (I use «philadelphia»)
  • 1 cup grated mozarella cheese
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the topping:

  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/3 cup almonds, chopped in a food processor (don’t turn them into almond powder)
  • 2 Tbs olive oil

Method

Preheat oven to 175 C. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add a generous amount of salt. Put a large bowl filled with iced water next to the stove. Blanch the asparagus in the boiling water for 2 minutes until they are crisp tender. Remove them from the pot using a slotted spoon. Immediatedly add them to the iced water.

Next add the broccoli florets in the boiling water. Leave them to cook for 5 minutes. While brocoli cooks, remove the asparagus from the iced water and put in a large bowl. After 5 minutes, remove brocoli with a slotted spoon and immediatedly put in the iced water. Leve for a few minuted to cool. Remove brocoli from the iced water and chop with a knife into smaller, bite size pieces. Mix with the asparagus. Add the lemon juice, chilli flakes, salt and freshly ground pepper.

In the same water you boiled the veggies (it will be green by now), add the pasta shells. Boil for 9 minutes only.

Make bechamel while pasta cooks. Melt butter in a pot over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook stirring for a few seconds until fragrant. Add the flour and cook stirring for a minute or so, until fragrant and it starts to colour. Add the milk, cream, mustard and lemon zest. Cook stirring for 2-3 minutes until slightly thickened. Add the cream cheese and take off the heat. Stir until cream cheese is incorporated. Season with salt and pepper.

Drain the pasta, discard the cooking water and put back in the empty pot (off the heat). Add the bechamel, veggies and grated mozzarella. Mix everything together and spread in a large, ceramic or glass baking pan (I used a 28 x 33 cm rectangular pan). Taste and adjust seasoning.

In a small bowl mix the breadcrumbs with the olive oil. Add the almonds and parmesan and mix again. Sprinkle topping all over the pasta. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve at once with a leafy green salad.

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