As fresh spring vegetables make their way into local markets, it's a good time to think about including more of them in our meals. Master the simple art of pairing fresh veggies with pasta to add a whole new range of delicious, affordable, healthy dishes to your culinary repertoire.
But first: Do you harbor any hesitation about eating pasta on a regular basis? Don't miss out on one of the most versatile and convenient foods because you make the mistake of thinking it will cause you to gain weight.
Pasta is one of the bedrocks of the Mediterranean Diet, and the new Dietary Guidelines, released at the end of January, gave a big boost to both the Mediterranean eating pattern and healthy carbohydrates, confirming that it's the quality and quantity of the foods we eat - not carbohydrates - that contribute to weight gain.
Since pasta comes in so many shapes and sizes, including delicious varieties made with whole grains and/or protein-rich legumes, it deserves ample space in your pantry and on your table as a key ingredient in healthy cooking.
Keep those fresh vegetables and other Mediterranean Diet staples in mind to create pasta meals that go way beyond a tomato sauce topping: Toss hot, cooked pasta with a variety of chopped, roasted vegetables, plus beans, nuts, fresh or dried herbs, eggs, cheese, tuna or other seafood to create a delicious, satisfying meal in one bowl. (Always save a little bit of the pasta cooking water to moisten the final dish, if necessary.)
To keep the meal healthy, pay attention to portion sizes. Figure on ½ to 2/3 cup of pasta per serving. But adopt the make-it-once, eat-it-twice mentality and prepare enough so you can reheat leftovers for a second dinner, take them to work for lunch, or deliver a ready-to-go meal to a neighbor.
Here are two great ways to pair fresh vegetables with pasta:
Vegetable Orzo Primavera
Primavera, which means "in spring" in Italian, refers in recipes to using fresh early vegetables. This dish welcomes innovation: you can also make it with roasted fresh asparagus.
3 carrots, peeled
2 medium zucchini
2 yellow summer squash
1 yellow bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 onion, thinly sliced
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon dried Italian herbs or herbes de Provence
2 teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 pound orzo
20 cherry tomatoes, halved
¾ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Cut the carrots, zucchini, squash, and bell peppers into thin 2-inch-long strips. Toss the vegetable strips, onion, olive oil, dried herbs, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Line two heavy baking sheets with foil and arrange half the vegetables in an even layer on each sheet.
Bake, stirring after the first 10 minutes, until the carrots are tender and the other vegetables begin to brown, about 20 minutes total.
Meanwhile, as the vegetables are baking, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the orzo and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but still firm to the bite, about 9 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid.
Combine the pasta with the cooked vegetables in a large bowl.
Add the cherry tomatoes and enough of the reserved cooking liquid, ¼ cup at a time, to moisten. Season the pasta with more salt and pepper to taste.
Transfer the pasta to individual bowls. Sprinkle with cheese and serve.
Calories: 360.5, Fat: 11g, Sodium 463mg, Carbohydrate: 54g, Protein: 14g
Recipe courtesy of Barilla.
Spinach Lasagna with Walnut Pesto
This easy. colorful lasagna uses the rich taste of spinach and walnut pesto to deliver fresh, light flavor. Toasting the walnuts brings out their sweet flavor and is very easy to do: Simply arrange the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F for about 8 to 10 minutes.
1 cup Walnut Pesto (see recipe below)
A little olive oil for the pan
2 pounds nonfat ricotta cheese or nonfat cottage cheese
2 pounds fresh spinach, washed, or 2 10- ounce packages fresh baby spinach leaves, finely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/3 cup minced, lightly toasted walnuts
1 24-ounce jar low-sugar tomato sauce (or about2 3/4 cups of your favorite sauce)
16 fresh, uncooked green (spinach) lasagna noodles or, if using dried, 16 no-boil noodles
1/2 pound low-fat mozzarella cheese, grated
Make the Pesto. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly oil a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Put the ricotta or cottage cheese in a large bowl. Stir in the spinach, pesto, garlic, salt, pepper, half the parmesan, and the walnuts. Mix well. Spread half the tomato sauce in the bottom of the pan. Place a layer of uncooked noodles over the sauce. Spoon about 1/3 of the ricotta or cottage cheese filling in dabs over the noodles (you can spread it a little, but not too much) and sprinkle with 1/3 of the grated mozzarella. Follow with another layer of sauce, then noodles, followed by another 1/3 of the filling, and another 1/3 of the mozzarella. Repeat one more time, and then finish up with a final layer of noodles. You will have some parmesan left over.
If you are using fresh noodles, bake uncovered. If you are using dried noodles, cover the pan tightly with foil.
Bake for 50 minutes, uncovering the pan (if applicable) during the last 15 minutes, during which time you can sprinkle on the reserved parmesan. (In the case of the uncovered pan, if the top of the lasagna becomes as brown as you like it before the full baking time is up, cover loosely with foil and continue baking, so it won't get too dark.) Remove from the oven and let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Calories: 560, Fat: 24g, Sodium 583mg, Carbohydrate: 54g, Protein: 38g
Recipe by Mollie Katzen, courtesy of California Walnut Commission.
This classic sauce is easy to make and can be kept on-hand for several days. For something faster than lasagna, simply toss it with noodles. It also makes a tasty sandwich spread or dip for fresh veggies.
3 packed cups fresh basil leaves
3 large cloves garlic
1/3 cup lightly toasted walnuts
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: additional extra virgin olive oil (for storage)
Combine the basil leaves and garlic in a food processor or blender, and mix well. Add the walnuts, and continue to blend until the nuts are finely ground.
With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil. When you have a smooth paste, transfer to a bowl, and stir in the parmesan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
If you are not going to use the pesto right away, place it in a container that has a tight-fitting lid. Smooth out the top surface of the pesto, and pour on enough olive oil to cover it completely. This creates an air-proof seal that helps preserve it well. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator.
Calories: 263, Fat: 27g, Sodium 104mg, Carbohydrate: 3g, Protein: 5g
Recipe by Mollie Katzen, courtesy of California Walnut Commission.