Saturnalia and Holiday Dishes for Small Gatherings

Saturnalia and Holiday Dishes for Small Gatherings

By Tim Hazell


Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival boisterously celebrated by all levels of society. It originally took place on December 17 of the Julian calendar and was later expanded to December 23 because of the engaging carnival atmosphere, pomp, and circumstance. Public events included sacrifices at the Temple of Saturn and an elaborate communal banquet. Households encouraged private gift-giving and gambling as well as a temporary reversal of master-slave roles, with important personages providing table service for their slaves and freedmen. 


Our diverse ways of celebrating the holidays this year have been deeply eroded by the pandemic. Many kitchens are under pressure to come up with safe alternatives to large family and social gatherings. Holiday fare for intimate dinners is “de rigueur,” replacing standard presentations of traditional whole turkey and trimmings.


Here is a lovely (non-vegan) vegetarian dish of tender stuffed pasta shells by Anna Stockwell that is sure to set a joyous holiday mood!


Vegetarian Skillet Stuffed Pasta Shells

Serves 4-6 holiday revelers



18 jumbo pasta shells (about 6 oz.)

1-1/2 tsp. sea salt, divided, plus more to taste

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. cremini or white button mushrooms, thinly sliced 

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup dry white wine or vermouth

5 oz. baby spinach

6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 tbsp. unsalted butter

3 cups marinara sauce (best brands: Rao’s, Prego, Barilla, or homemade)

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 cups whole-milk ricotta

3 oz. finely grated Parmesan (about 1 cup), plus more for serving

3 tbsp. finely chopped fresh oregano, divided



Cook shells in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain. Run under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain again. Heat oil in a large skillet over high flame. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they release juices, then dry and nicely browned, about five to six minutes. Season with black pepper and 1 tsp. salt. Reduce heat to medium, add wine and cook, stirring, until reduced by half. Add spinach, cover, and cook until beginning to wilt, one to two minutes. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until spinach is completely wilted and most of the liquid has evaporated; two to four minutes more. Transfer mushroom mixture to a large bowl. 


Reserve skillet. Cook garlic and butter over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until garlic is fragrant and beginning to brown. Add marinara sauce and red pepper flakes and bring to a simmer over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until warmed through, another six to eight minutes.


While sauce cooks, add ricotta, Parmesan, oregano, and remaining 1/2 tsp. salt to mushroom mixture. Stir to combine. Spoon about 2 tbsp. ricotta mixture into each shell. Shells should be filled to capacity but not overstuffed. Nestle stuffed shells into warm sauce in skillet. Cover and cook over medium heat until shells are heated through, about four to six minutes. Remove from flame and let sit five minutes. Sprinkle with extra Parmesan and remaining 1 tbsp. oregano before serving.