By Melissa D’Arabian
Ask my husband what his favorite comfort food is and the answer will be quick: pasta. Who doesn’t love a steamy bowl of noodles or macaroni slathered in butter and cheese? It’s a classic, born straight out of childhood mac and cheese days, morphed into a late night college study-session standby.
As adults, we decide to eat healthier, and it almost seems like our loyal noodle friend gets tossed aside, as if there were no way to include pasta in a healthy diet. Well, I’m here with good news: Pasta can be part of a healthy diet, and I have a few tips to help keep things both comforting and nutritious.
First: Read the labels, because not all pastas are created equal. Look for whole grain pastas, which usually translate into more protein and fiber, which makes your meal more filling. So instead of 2 full ounces, which is the standard pasta serving size, you might be looking at leftovers.
If you are feeling extra ambitious, you can even seek out some pasta versions that are made from beans and legumes. Next tip is to minimize fat by using starchy pasta water for saucy silkiness — just scoop out some water with a measuring cup before draining the pasta. Saute up some veggies and aromatics in just a smidge of olive oil, and use the pasta water to add the saucy vibe.
Adding veggies to the pasta will bulk it up, add nutrients and make the pasta prettier. My go-to is frozen spinach — I always have a bag in my freezer so it’s an easy way to get some pretty green in pasta. You could saute it up with the aromatics and olive, or in weeknight rush, toss the frozen spinach right into the boiling pasta just before draining in to cook it there.
My final tip: try lemon zest instead of part or all of the parmesan cheese. The zest adds an aromatic depth that somehow makes the nutty parmesan cheese less pronounced if missing. Note that when I use my lemon zest trick, I swap out classic basil and use fresh thyme instead — it’s a marriage made in heaven.
PENNE WITH GARLIC TOMATOES, LEMON ZEST AND SPINACH
Start to finish: 20 minutes
12 ounces whole grain penne pasta
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cups grape tomatoes, washed and thoroughly dried
6 ounces chopped frozen spinach, thawed, excess moisture squeezed out
1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme
2 tablespoons lemon zest
Lemons for squeezing, optional
Salt and pepper
Cook the pasta according to package directions, reserving about 3/4 cup of starchy pasta water before draining. While pasta is cooking: Place the olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes in a ramekin, and mix with a spoon, gently pressing the garlic into the oil. Place the garlic oil in an unheated deep saute pan, and turn the burner on medium heat.
As the oil heats, it will become fragrant. As soon as the oil is warm and smells of garlic, add the tomatoes, and cook until they are coated with garlic oil and they barely begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach and cook, stirring for 3 minutes.
Increase the temperature to medium high, and add the cooked pasta and about half the starchy water. Stir, and let simmer for 1 minute. Add extra water if needed. Add the thyme, lemon zest and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with lemons for squeezing (optional).
Nutrition information per serving: 221 calories; 36 calories from fat; 4 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 157 mg sodium; 43 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 10 g protein.