How to up the health profile of pasta

    Bucatini, a long, spaghetti-like noodle with a hole running through the length of it, is tossed with hazelnuts, red pepper paste, lamb and fresh herbs. [Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS]

    Just as I’ve never been one for New Year’s food resolutions, I’ve never warmed up to the notion of a low-carb diet.

    Pasta is a mainstay of my kitchen, something I simply won’t do without. If I was stranded on a desert island with only one food to eat for the rest of my life, I’d choose pasta, provided I also had butter or oil and salt.

    Not the most nutritious pick, I realize. But what would I care? I’d prefer to spend the short time I likely had left relishing those fast carbs and largely empty calories.

    It’s the rare pasta variation that I haven’t prepared. In more than a dozen years of writing and blogging about food, I’ve touted hundreds of recipes, along with free-form uses for noodles, in the newspaper’s food section and my blog, The Whole Dish.

    But when I almost convince myself there’s no new pasta dish under the sun, I run across a recipe like this one from the Chicago Tribune. Inspired “vaguely” by The London Plane restaurant in Seattle, Crying Bucatini combines Thai and Mediterranean flavors in a way I never would have conceived. Its inclusion of ground lamb, another staple in my home, convinced me that I had to try it, rather than consigning that lamb to another meal of meatballs with spaghetti or Greek pizza.

    I couldn’t make the dish without adapting it, of course, because I’m obstinately incapable of accepting most recipes as gospel. I’ve cooked enough ground lamb, for example, to know that I don’t need additional oil for sauteing. Lamb is fatty enough that in a nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron pan, there’s little chance of it sticking. Because I skipped the oil (also stricken here from the original recipe), I also skipped the step that called for draining the browned meat.

    The use of hazelnuts also intrigued me. But shelling them, of course, is something of a pain, skinning them even more so. And after tasting the finished dish I thought almonds or even pistachios would have been just as good for much less hassle.

    I took the liberty of intensifying the lamb’s savor with fish sauce, which I’ve come to view almost as a multipurpose seasoning. It’s an obvious addition to this recipe’s Thai red-pepper paste and lime juice.

    Similarly, I played up the lime by incorporating its zest with the juice in the melted butter. Yet in the end, I still craved more acid. So when I reheated leftovers, I mixed up more pepper-tomato paste with a few dashes of fish sauce and a good dollop of tamarind concentrate. The sugar called for here is superfluous on my palate.

    The dish’s Thai sensibility would be even more apparent by substituting coconut oil for the butter, only in about half the quantity because this dish doesn’t lack for fat. And while you’re at it, use rice noodles instead of wheat. It won’t be low-carb but at least it would be gluten-free.

    Improving the health profile of pasta dishes is as easy as loading them up with vegetables, preferably locally grown and seasonally fresh. Winter is the time to pass over tomatoes, eggplant and summer squash for winter squash, hardy greens and cruciferous vegetables. To heighten the mealtime appeal of veggies when paired with pasta, think pesto, fettuccine Alfredo and macaroni and cheese.

    Whereas Crying Bucatini transports the taste buds to unfamiliar territory, the other recipes below take their cues from well-established flavor profiles. Boasting broccoli instead of basil, the penne dish incorporates nuts, cheese, garlic and olive oil, all essential components of traditional pesto brightened with the acidity of olives and capers. This recipe forever changed my aversion to “overcooked” broccoli.  

    This fettuccine Alfredo’s satisfying sauce is built not on cream but cooked and mashed cauliflower. I can vouch for this dish’s favor with vegetable-wary kids and also adults craving comfort food without so many calories.

    And while Pasta With Butternut Squash and Herbs contains no cheese, its bright orange hue recalls macaroni and cheese. Roasted winter squash, perhaps left over from another meal, is among the most harmonious and healthful additions to macaroni and cheese, even from a box. Feel free to mix and match this recipe’s fresh herbs, namely basil if you don’t grow it yourself in a sunny windowsill. Suitable companions for the parsley include fresh thyme, sage, rosemary and tarragon, all imparting varying degrees of pungency. 

    Crying Bucatini

    1 cup hazelnuts without skins

    1 pound ground lamb

    2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

    3 to 4 tablespoons Thai red pepper paste (fermented or roasted)

    1 tablespoon tomato paste

    1 teaspoon sugar

    Kosher salt, as needed

    1 pound bucatini

    6 tablespoons butter

    3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

    1 cup each, coarsely chopped, fresh: mint, cilantro, basil

    Roll the nuts onto a rimmed baking sheet. Slide into a 400-degree oven and roast until golden and fragrant, shaking once or twice, for about 8 minutes. Coarsely chop. (A food processor cuts down on fugitives.)

    In a wide skillet over medium-high heat, add the lamb; cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until just browned, for about 5 minutes. Scrape into a colander to drain off fat. Return meat to skillet. Lower heat to medium. Stir in the garlic, pepper paste, tomato paste, sugar and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cook for 1 minute.

    In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta until tender but firm. Scoop out 1 cup cooking water. Drain pasta.

    In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the lime juice and 3 tablespoons of pasta cooking water. Boil for 1 minute. Add the nuts and cook for 30 seconds.

    Toss hazelnut sauce with cooked pasta. Add lamb and toss. Add the herbs and toss. Taste for salt. If pasta looks dry, add a little more reserved pasta cooking water. Enjoy.

    Makes 6 servings.

    Pasta With Broccoli, Olives and Pistachios

    Salt, as needed

    1½ pounds broccoli

    2 garlic cloves, peeled

    2 anchovy fillets, drained and blotted dry if oil-packed, rinsed and cleaned if salt-packed

    2 tablespoons capers, preferably salt-packed, rinsed and drained

    ½ cup pitted black olives, preferably Gaeta, taggiasche or Kalamata (3 ounces)

    1/3 cup shelled unsalted pistachios (1.5 ounces)

    6 tablespoons very fruity, extra-virgin olive oil

    1 small piece dried chili, about an inch long

    1 pound pasta, preferably penne, orecchiette or rigatoni

    6 rounded tablespoons grated pecorino Romano cheese

    Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil.

    Trim the broccoli: Remove florets and peel and dice stems, keeping them separate. You should have about 5 cups total.

    Chop coarsely together by hand the garlic, anchovy fillets, capers, olives and pistachios.

    Heat the oil gently in a skillet large enough to hold pasta later. Add the chili and discard when it begins to color. Add garlic mixture to pan and cook gently in oil until it just begins to turn gold, for about 2 minutes.

    When water is boiling rapidly, add broccoli stems and cook for 2 minutes. Add florets and continue cooking until they are bright-green and tender, but still slightly crisp and not mushy, for 4 to 5 minutes.

    With a slotted spoon or spider strainer, lift cooked broccoli out of pot right into skillet, leaving water boiling in pot. Stir broccoli and garlic mixture together, breaking up any large florets with spoon; broccoli pieces should be small enough to coat pasta. Taste broccoli mixture and add more salt if necessary (with anchovies, olives and capers, you will probably not need any), and let flavors blend for a couple of minutes over low heat.

    Meanwhile, add the pasta to boiling water and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente, generally 8 to 10 minutes.

    When pasta is done, lift it out of water and transfer it, rather wet, to skillet. Mix well over low heat for about 30 seconds, sprinkle with cheese and mix again. Transfer to a warm serving dish or serve directly from skillet. Serve immediately.

    Makes 6 servings.

    — Recipe from “Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces & Shapes,” by Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen B. Fant

    Fettuccine ‘Alfredo’

    ½ head cauliflower (about 1 pound), chopped

    12 ounces fettuccine

    2 tablespoons olive oil

    1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

    ½ teaspoon kosher salt

    ½ teaspoon pepper, plus more to taste

    2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

    1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

    1 cup 1-percent milk

    ½ cup grated Romano cheese

    Pinch of cayenne pepper

    Chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

    Place the cauliflower with 2½ cups water in a pot and simmer until cauliflower falls apart when squeezed, for 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer cauliflower and any remaining water in pot to a blender and puree until smooth, adding extra water if necessary.

    Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions, omitting salt. Reserve 1 cup pasta-cooking liquid, drain pasta and return it to pot.

    In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion, salt and pepper; cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until very tender, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Sprinkle with the flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute more. Stir in the milk and simmer until slightly thickened, for about 3 minutes. Stir in the cheese.

    Add milk mixture and the cayenne to blender; puree until smooth. Toss cauliflower mixture with pasta, adding some reserved cooking liquid if mixture seems dry. Top with pepper and parsley before serving.

    Makes 4 servings.

    — Recipe from “Women’s Day Easy Everyday Lighter Dinners”

    Pasta With Butternut Squash and Herbs

    1 medium butternut squash, about 1½ to 2 pounds

    3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

    Salt and pepper, to taste

    8 ounces whole-grain medium shells or penne

    ½ onion, peeled and chopped

    3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

    1½ cups unsalted vegetable stock, divided

    1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

    1 tablespoon cornstarch

    2 tablespoons minced, fresh basil

    2 tablespoons minced, fresh parsley

    Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with cooking spray.

    Using a large, heavy knife, cut off ends of the squash. Peel using a vegetable peeler. Cut squash in half, remove seeds and cut squash into ¾-inch cubes. Place squash cubes in a zip-close bag. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil and season with salt and pepper. Seal and toss to coat evenly. Spread cubes in a single layer on prepared baking sheet. Bake uncovered in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until tender and edges are lightly browned, stirring midway through cooking.

    Meanwhile, cook the pasta in boiling water, according to package directions; drain.

    Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 to 4 minutes or until onion is just tender. Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently for 30 seconds. Add 1¼ cups of the stock and the Italian seasoning. Heat until boiling. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

    Stir together remaining ¼ cup stock and the cornstarch. Stir cornstarch mixture into simmering stock. Cook, stirring continuously, until bubbly and thickened.

    In a large serving bowl, stir together cooked squash, pasta and sauce. Sprinkle with the fresh, minced herbs and toss to combine.

    Makes 4 servings.

    — Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at

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