Ok – we’ve had a couple of cooler days here in Minnesota, and I recently made a lot of my Grilled Blackened Cajun Chicken Breasts so I could use them to spin off several easy peasy meals that would be perfect for hot summer days. And I made a few but then I deviated! I couldn’t resist making these gorgeous Creamy Cajun Stuffed Shells with that final bit of chicken. I’m so excited about them I couldn’t hold off for a more appropriate season – these are probably going down as one of my most fave recipes ever on my site!
But first a disclaimer – these aren’t exactly a super easy recipe (I do give you hints to help out) nor are they another “beat the heat” since it’s August recipe like I intended to make all month. And I do hope you’re not tired of hearing about Cajun this and Cajun that!! Especially as I have another post or two in the future! I’ll hold off a bit, though, because summer feels like it’s about to end and back to school is pending (or already started in some areas! My grandbabies are already in school!) and I have so many other summery things I’d like to share.
About Creamy Cajun Stuffed Shells:
So let’s talk about these Stuffed Shells. These are good enough for a special occasion and/or company-worthy. (You might want to double the recipe, they’re so good.) The stuffing in these shells is a beautiful thing. There are shredded chicken and Ricotta cheese, so right away you know that’s a stellar combo. Too much creaminess can be overwhelming so it’s balanced with some finely diced veggies for texture; the famed New Orleans’ Trinity: a little onion, celery, and red bell pepper. Then it’s spiced up with a good amount of garlic, pepper and a bit of Cajun seasoning.
My first instinct was to make these Creamy Cajun Stuffed Shells with a spicy, Cajun – esque sauce. The flavors in the stuffed shells didn’t have any contrast with that sauce…it was just too much of a good thing. Then I tried a cheesy Alfredo sauce. Again, it was just too, too much; so rich. Finally, the third time was the charm. I choose a gorgeous, garlicky cream sauce to nap those stuffed shells in lusciousness, but I gave Afredo a bit of a nod by topping the whole casserole with a restrained amount of cheese…barely a sprinkle, and it was the perfect final touch.
The end result is so irresistible it’s gonna be hard to put your fork down. And speaking from personal experience, this is the kind of dish that you’ll eat until you’re full and then keep want to keep eating. The kind of dish that as you sit chatting when dinner is finished, you’ll still be picking up small bits from the casserole, all while saying that you shouldn’t, that you really can’t, have another bite. And then you do!
Making Creamy Cajun Stuffed Shells:
I’m not gonna lie, stuffed shells can be a pain to make. I considered going for just an old school Chicken Pasta Casserole, but over the years, I’ve just kind of gotten over those. They’re too one-note and too often bland and heavy and that dish just doesn’t seem very special. Not so with these Creamy Cajun Stuffed Shells. I love the way the shells nestle the Cajun filling inside, and how the sauce is such a nice contrast, and that makes each bite seem like a new adventure.
I do have a few hints that make this casserole easier:
- First of all, cook your pasta in heavily salted water, slightly undercook your shells, they should be on the lower side of al dente so go for the minimum cook time. Drain them well and turn them upside down on a sheet pan, separating any as needed. They won’t be too slippery to hold easily as you fill.
- Use chicken you’ve already cooked for the filling; that knocks off a whole step and these are a perfect use of leftovers, especially the leftovers from my Grilled Blackened Cajun Chicken Breasts.
- This is a great time to pull out the food processor, both to shred the chicken and to break down the veggies. They need to be in a fine dice. Just barely cook the veggies then build the filling all in that same pan.
- Use a scoop to fill the shells. You’ll need a one tablespoon scoop. It’s gonna make your life so much easier!
I tried to make this filling just enough for a half a box of jumbo shells, which is usually 22 to 23. You’ll need 1 1/2 cups of shredded chicken and 1 1/4 cup of finely diced veggies before they’re cooked, about a cup after. If you don’t have enough chicken for some reason, if you happen to come up short, make up the difference in veggies.
You’ll want to taste that filling to make sure it’s just right before the egg goes in, but don’t get carried away; you don’t want to run short. In my fave version, this has a little zip, maybe just a little more Cajun seasoning than I might normally use, so it holds up to the creamy sauce. 1 1/2 teaspoons are barely detectable in the finished casserole, two is a bit more forward but still very family-friendly, and go for more if that’s your “thang.” If you don’t use a Cajun chicken, add in an extra 1/4 teaspoon of the seasoning. I have only tested this with Paul Prudhomme’s Blackened Seasoning because I am currently in loooove with it; other Cajun seasonings might vary in heat.
I usually have several different kinds of cheese on hand and the perfect touch on top of the casserole was a little finely grated cheese, abut 1/4 cup of gouda or provolone and the same amount of finely grated cheddar. The combo gave the casserole such a beautiful flavor and color. You can use whatever kind of cheese you want or have on hand, as long as its something that melts well.
When this comes out of the oven, the sauce will be thin…no worries, it will thicken up as it cools down from molten lava hot to a servable temperature. Just dish out the shells, then dish a good spoonful of the sauce over the top. The dish should serve five to six, three to four shells per person (they’re rich) but I’d take that with a grain of salt – if your family loves these as much as we do…you might want to make more. Serve with a simple salad on the side, maybe with my Louisiana Sensation Salad Dressing.
Saving Money on Creamy Cajun Stuffed Shells:
If you love making stuffed shells, nab them when they are on sale because that’s a rare occurrence, at least in my area. They’re hardly ever included on sale with the rest of the pasta.
Your greater savings will come with making sure that the chicken you buy or use was at a great sale price; chicken usually drops to a low once a quarter and that’s a great time to stock up. Buy the large family packs and portion in sizes for your family, label, and freeze.
Shop well for the dairy, the butter and especially the cream. I generally find the best prices for both at Aldi, although the buyer’s club is usually a good price, or on sale around any holiday. The same goes for the Ricotta. It pays to know where to find the best prices; it can vary wildly and can be unpredictable. I’ve seen 16 ounces for $4.99 up to $5.99 for 8 ounces. I do have a recipe for Homemade Ricotta if you like to do that kind of cooking…it’s actually an easy, fun project and is so fresh, so creamy it puts any storebought version to shame.
Creamy Cajun Stuffed Shells
Cook the shells:
- 1/2 of a 12-ounce box of large pasta shells (about 22 to 23)
- 1 tablespoon salt
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Season with plenty of salt and add pasta. Follow timing on package directions, cooking until just al dente. Better to be slightly under-cooked, as they’ll continue to cook while the casserole is baking. Drain, rinse with cold water, separate if needed and set aside. Optional but recommended, layout, open side down on a sheet tray to thoroughly drain.
Make the filling:
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 large onion, finely diced
- 1/2 large red bell pepper, finely diced
- 1 large stalk celery, finely diced
- 2 large cloves garlic, finely diced
- 2 teaspoons cajun seasoning (tested with Paul Prudhomme’s Blackened Seasoning )
- 3/4 cup ricotta
- 1 1/2 cups cooked, shredded chicken, about a 1/2 pound uncooked (see note)
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
In a skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook three or four minutes until the mixture appears dry and the vegetables have softened but are still retain some texture and are very slightly crispy. Make a well in the center and add the garlic and cajun seasoning. Cook for a minute, stirring until garlic is fragrant and seasoning has lost its raw flavor. Do not burn.
Remove from heat and add the ricotta, chicken, green onion and lemon zest. Add salt and pepper to taste, heavy on the pepper. Stir in egg. The texture should be about the same as a warm sausage, soft but scoopable but not too thick. Add a bit of water if needed to thin.
For the Sauce & Assembly:
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup cream, heavy or whipping
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley or 2 teaspoons dried
- salt and pepper to taste (heavy on pepper)
- a dash or two of hot sauce (Tobasco preferred)
- 1/2 cup finely grated cheese (recommended: mixture of white cheese like gouda, pepper jack, or provolone along with yellow cheese, like cheddar)
- finely chopped parsley for garnish
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter. add garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, or until just fragrant. Sprinkle flour over and whisk until the bubbles in the mixture reduce in size and it just starts to turn a bit golden, stirring almost constantly.
Pour in the milk and cream, whisking constantly, bring to a boil and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon and when a finger is run down the spoon, the mixture doesn’t fill it in. The mixture will be loose (it will thicken a bit as it starts to cool.) Stir in parsley, season with salt and pepper to taste, about 3/2 teaspoon of salt and heavy on the pepper, several grinds if using a grinder 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon if using a box. Add in a dash or more of hot sauce. The mixture should be highly seasoned and taste a bit peppery and garlicky but not be spicy.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Place a cup of the sauce in the bottom of 9×13 casserole. (If there is an option of sizes, choose a size where the shells fit closely.) Set the rest of the sauce aside. Fill shells with 1 tablespoon of the filling and place in casserole, open side up. When the shells are all filled and placed in the casserole, pour the remaining cream sauce over slowly, making sure all the pasta is covered.
Cover and bake for 15 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle with cheese and bake for an additional 10 minutes until hot and bubbly around the edges. If necessary, turn the broiler on until the top of the casserole is golden brown.
Garnish with parsley as desired.
- If not using a Cajun chicken (like my Grilled Blackened Cajun Chicken Breasts add an additional 1/4 teaspoon of Cajun seasoning.
- To reheat any leftovers, place a serving in a shallow bowl with a tablespoon or two of milk, cover and microwave for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.