Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

How a Pig Made Me Reinvent My Favorite Dish

by 
Amelia Grant
August 30, 2022

I’ll admit to a Southerner’s affection for pork. Bacon, chops, half loin roast, pork butt barbecue – I have loved it all, and have made ragu with most of it. In my kitchen, ground pork was the basis of the ubiquitous sauce, and I especially loved it with my stuffed pasta shells. The milky goodness of ricotta complemented the tender greens in the shells, which I bathed in the warm pool of velvety pork and vegetable laced ragu. I topped it with crunchy panko and added a glass of wine and a side of Parmesan garlic toasted breadsticks. All together it was pasta nirvana.

Then one day I met Miss Piggy.

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For reasons unknown, my neighbor got a pig. I am from Atlanta but I moved to a much more rural area where apparently stuff like this happens. The idea of people keeping pigs at their house is foreign to this city girl. The pig turned out to be a very cute little brown brindle pig that stood up and said ‘Hi’ every time I walked past to tend my vegetable garden. Miss Piggy and I would speak daily during the vegetable gardening season and I looked forward to her soft snorts of acknowledgment as I trudged by to water and fertilize.

She grew and, instead of becoming less attractive, became cuter and more appealing, wagging her curly tail like a dog when she spotted me rounding the corner. The other white meat had become a friend. I just couldn’t bring myself to turn my new pal, or any adorable creature who resembled her, into a sauce ingredient, but I also couldn’t give up my beloved ragu.

In the end, my favorite recipe had been rewritten by a summer romance with a pig. The reinvented dish is Herbed Stuffed Pasta Shells luxuriating in Bison Ragu. The bison brought a sweetness that contrasted nicely with the tangy cheeses, and the spinach added a vegetal, earthy depth to the dish. Porcine safety (from me, at least) was achieved. I doubt I will ever meet a cute bison, but if I do, this dish is excellent made with marinara sauce instead of the bison ragu.

Bison Ragu Stuffed Shells

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Ingredients

For the ragu

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided

16 oz ground bison

1 medium yellow onion, medium dice

1/3  large fennel bulb, medium dice

4 small-medium carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4" coins

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

4 oz baby bella mushrooms, sliced

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 cup Fifth Season Spinach

1 tsp Montreal steak seasoning

1/2 tsp fennel seed

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

3 sprigs fresh thyme

2 tbsp tomato paste

3/4 cup red wine (Merlot works well)

28 oz can crushed tomatoes

For the stuffed shells

3/4 cup part skim ricotta cheese

4 tbsp Parmesan cheese, shredded and divided

⅛ tsp black pepper, finely ground

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves

1/8 tsp garlic powder

2 tbsp mixed fresh herbs (basil, parsley, or both), finely chopped 

16 uncooked jumbo pasta shells

4 cups bison ragu (from recipe)

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 garlic cloves, minced

8 oz Fifth Season spinach

12 oz marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped

1 15.5 oz can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1 large egg

4 oz mild cheese (mozzerella or mild cheddar), shredded

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Ingredients

For the ragu

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided

16 oz ground bison

1 medium yellow onion, medium dice

1/3  large fennel bulb, medium dice

4 small-medium carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4" coins

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

4 oz baby bella mushrooms, sliced

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 cup Fifth Season Spinach

1 tsp Montreal steak seasoning

1/2 tsp fennel seed

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

3 sprigs fresh thyme

2 tbsp tomato paste

3/4 cup red wine (Merlot works well)

28 oz can crushed tomatoes

For the stuffed shells

3/4 cup part skim ricotta cheese

4 tbsp Parmesan cheese, shredded and divided

⅛ tsp black pepper, finely ground

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves

1/8 tsp garlic powder

2 tbsp mixed fresh herbs (basil, parsley, or both), finely chopped 

16 uncooked jumbo pasta shells

4 cups bison ragu (from recipe)

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 garlic cloves, minced

8 oz Fifth Season spinach

12 oz marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped

1 15.5 oz can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1 large egg

4 oz mild cheese (mozzerella or mild cheddar), shredded

Ingredients

For the ragu

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided

16 oz ground bison

1 medium yellow onion, medium dice

1/3  large fennel bulb, medium dice

4 small-medium carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4" coins

1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

4 oz baby bella mushrooms, sliced

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 cup Fifth Season Spinach

1 tsp Montreal steak seasoning

1/2 tsp fennel seed

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

3 sprigs fresh thyme

2 tbsp tomato paste

3/4 cup red wine (Merlot works well)

28 oz can crushed tomatoes

For the stuffed shells

3/4 cup part skim ricotta cheese

4 tbsp Parmesan cheese, shredded and divided

⅛ tsp black pepper, finely ground

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves

1/8 tsp garlic powder

2 tbsp mixed fresh herbs (basil, parsley, or both), finely chopped 

16 uncooked jumbo pasta shells

4 cups bison ragu (from recipe)

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 garlic cloves, minced

8 oz Fifth Season spinach

12 oz marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped

1 15.5 oz can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1 large egg

4 oz mild cheese (mozzerella or mild cheddar), shredded

Directions

For the bison ragu

1. Heat half the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, swirling to coat the pan. Add ground bison, breaking it up and stirring the meat until browned, about 6 minutes. Drain fat from meat, wipe out the skillet and put the meat aside.

2. Heat remaining oil in the same skillet. Add onions, fennel, carrots, and red pepper flakes, sauteing until vegetables are soft and onions translucent, about 6 minutes.  Add mushrooms and garlic and saute until garlic is fragrant, about a minute. Add spinach, steak seasoning, fennel seed, herbs, and tomato paste and cook until the spinach wilts. Pour wine over the meat and vegetables and simmer until the additional liquid is reduced.

3. Add meat and vegetable mixture to a slow cooker and pour in crushed tomatoes, stir well. Set a slow cooker on low or an Instant Pot on normal for 4 ½ hours.

           

For the stuffed shells

1. Stir together the ricotta, half the Parmesan, pepper, thyme, garlic powder and herbs. Place the mixture in the refrigerator for later use.

2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Grease a 13 x 9 inch pyrex dish with butter, oil, or cooking spray and spread 2 cups bison ragu on the bottom of the dish.

4. Mash the cannellini beans with a fork and add them to the ricotta mixture along with the egg and 1 tbsp olive oil. Mix until combined.

5. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chopped garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the spinach, stir to coat with oil and garlic and cook until tender, about 4 minutes. Add chopped artichokes, and bean/ricotta mixture and stir to combine.

6. Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil, add salt to taste and the pasta shells. Cook, stirring occasionally until al dente, drain thoroughly..

7. Stuff pasta shells with spinach bean mixture and place on top of bison ragu. Dot remaining bison ragu around shells. Top with all remaining shredded cheese.

8. Bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes until browned and bubbling.

About the Author

Amelia Grant

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