This dish is another meal that I’ve copied from a restaurant. There’s a quaint Italian place where I enjoyed many meals while in college. I used to alternate between two dishes: rigatoni with ricotta and baby shells with tomato bechamel. After graduation I moved away and when I would go back I found that the quality of the food was decreasing. For years I mourned the loss of my baby shells until one day I learned how to make bechamel sauce and the light bulb went off that Yes! I could make this dish! I’ve been recreating it for about a year and it’s not perfect yet, but it’s pretty close.
A few months ago I made dinner for three of my friends in lieu of Christmas gifts. It was a delicious dinner which consisted of the Alouette mushrooms, a provolone garlic bread, a nice green salad with homemade balsamic dressing and this pasta dish. The dish was a big hit and one of my friends asked for the recipe. My problem is that when I’m experimenting with food, I never use measurements. I just improvise. This is not always a good decision when trying to create a recipe that you want some consistency with. So I actually wrote down what measurements I used when I made this latest batch. I don’t know what to call it since baby shell bechamel is such a long non descriptive title. I’m taking suggestions for a name if you’re up for a challenge.
Baby Shell Bechamel
Feeds 4-6 hungry people
1T olive oil
1/8t pepper (white pepper if you have it is a nice touch)
pinch of nutmeg
1 large shallot or medium onion – finely chopped
2 cloves garlic – finely chopped
2 cups chicken stock ** see notes at the end
2 cups half and half, whole milk, or 2% ** see notes at the end
1 small can of crushed tomatoes (tomato sauce in picture, but crushed works better. 14 oz can)
1 box baby shells (or other small pasta)
freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese for garnish
freshly chopped basil for garnish
Start boiling water for the pasta.
Heat butter and olive oil in a skillet with deep sides over medium heat. You’ll be adding the pasta to this pan, so make sure it’s large enough to mix everything.
The base of the bechamel sauce is a roux which consists of equal parts flour and butter/oil. Sprinkle the flour over the onions and garlic and stir together. Allow the mixture to cook for a few minutes, being careful not to let it turn brown.
It will look thick and lumpy.
Add the half and half/milk and continue to wisk. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg and continue to wisk. Taste to adjust seasonings. The sauce should be thick and bubbly at this point. Adjust the heat if necessary so it does not come to a full boil.
Add the can of crushed tomatoes and wisk together. The sauce is just about done so you can taste again for seasoning and add more salt/pepper if you like. You can also sprinkle in some grated cheese or wait and allow that to be done at the table.
Cook the pasta a minute or two less than recommended, since it will continue to cook in the sauce. Drain pasta and add to the skillet. Mix together until sauce and pasta are combined and serve. It’s a saucy dish, so a good crusty bread is recommended.
Sprinkle with basil and grated cheese if you’d like.
- The pictures show a halved recipe. It does make a lot of food. Due to the cream sauce it reheats OK..not great, but not terrible either. Add a few sprinkles of water when reheating to make it creamier.
- A traditional bechamel sauce does not use chicken stock as part of the liquid. It uses the full amount of milk or half and half. I try to make my recipes as healthy as I can without compromising the integrity of the dish. If you want to be completely authentic, use 4c of milk/half and half instead of the chicken stock. I’d actually suggest you make it both ways to see if you can even tell a different. My version is not as thick as the original dish, which I attribute to the chicken stock substitution. I am planning on playing around with the amount of flour to adjust the thickness via the roux, too. Let me know what you think.
- I’m a creature of habit and I prefer baby shells in this recipe. I was out of them and had to use rotini. For other people, this may not matter so much. For me, the baby shells are integral to the success of the recipe.
(I will adjust this as I tweak the recipe, so your comments are welcome)