Turbocharging Your Tagliatelle
Pasta in all its shapes must be the ultimate comfort food, easily beating out chocolate mousse, fried chicken and any pastry you can name. Even better, it’s possible to enjoy it in style as part of a healthy diet. By choosing your recipes with a little care, and possibly making a few small changes here and there, you and your family can enjoy pasta three times a week or more while getting all the nourishment you need and without gaining an ounce.
One change you can make today, without spending a single additional cent, is to switch to wholewheat pasta products. Even those who claim that they “just don’t like” wholegrain bread and brown rice will enjoy wholewheat pasta. The texture is only slightly firmer than that of pasta made with white semolina, and it has a more pronounced, slightly nutty flavor. This simple change to your diet may be more significant than you think: our bodies require nutrients to digest our food. Whole grains and the products made from them typically contain the minerals and vitamins needed to absorb their bulk nutrients, while refined grains do not. Hence, they draw on reserves of nutrients you’ve already eaten to be processed, a problem you won’t have with whole grain products.
A huge number of our favorite pasta sauces (carbonara, alfredo, etc.) are based on cream. While a little occasionally won’t break the calorie bank, the cream can usually be substituted either with a simple béchamel sauce or by whisking in two tablespoons of cornstarch into one cup of skimmed milk while bringing to the boil. The latter won’t feel quite the same in your mouth but contains virtually no fat at all.
Finally, avoid bottled, ready-made sauces and even canned tomatoes. Manufactured sauces tend to be heavy in fat, sodium, and sugar since these are simply the easiest, cheapest ways to impart flavor. Some healthier options are available, but check the nutritional information label instead of trusting the advertisements. The problem with canned tomatoes (and beans, and other foods) centers on a chemical called BPA, which mimics natural estrogen and has been linked to a long list of medical conditions. This BPA is found in the inner lining of many (but not all) cans, and the high acidity of tomatoes may contribute to finding its way into your dinner. In past centuries, tomatoes were thought to be toxic – the tomatoes on their own were fine, but cooking them in a pot made partially of lead was not the best idea. Soaking beans overnight and then simmering them for an hour, or peeling your own tomatoes, takes less effort and time than you might think and will eliminate this sneaky risk.
Pasta dishes offer some advantages to the home cook who cares about what goes into his and his family’s bodies. In the first place, they’re fantastically easy to prepare. You don’t need a culinary degree from France to follow most recipes, many of which can be ready by the time the pasta water is boiling. The variety of ways to prepare pasta, from a fresh Primavera to a hearty meat lasagna, means that dinner need never be boring, whether you’re eight or eighty years old.
From a dietary perspective, it also allows us to blend some different food groups into one serving. Increasingly, nutritionists are advising the public to combine different foodstuffs (vegetables, protein, carbs and fiber) that complement each other’s nutrient absorption processes, and makes the entire meal digest more slowly and evenly. The latter is important in controlling blood sugar, which prevents weight gain and leads to a general sense of increased well-being. If you eat carbs for breakfast, grilled chicken for lunch and steamed broccoli for dinner, you’re technically hitting the right nutritional notes, but combining them all in one dish yields much greater benefits.
We’ve done the hard work of analyzing some of the most popular traditional Italian pasta dishes, and gladly present a few that can have a place in any calorie-controlled, nutritious diet. All of them are well within the capabilities of the average home cook, and none require ingredients your local supermarket does not stock. For actual recipes, the internet is your best friend.
It may seem odd to start off our collection of healthy recipes with one that seems to consist of nothing much besides meat and starch. Not true! Don’t be fooled by whatever you were served last time at a restaurant: aside from any good chef wanting to place his own stamp on what his kitchen produces, modern restaurants are often guilty of using traditional names on the menu for dishes that mainly reflect what their clientèle will enjoy. As one example, many places serve “Chicken Caesar Salad” – no such thing has ever existed.
Real-deal bolognese has proportions of about one quarter dry pasta, one-quarter lean meat, one-quarter tomatoes and one-quarter vegetables – celery, carrots, and onion. As such, it’s a hearty meal, but it’s not the Italian equivalent of meatloaf. The powerful flavor derives from seasonings such as chicken stock, bacon (a really small amount), red wine, garlic, bay leaves and other flavorings, not just piling on the beef.
To put this in perspective, the average less active person requires only between 45g and 60g of protein per day (about 1 ½ to 2 oz.). If half of this is contained in a bolognese dinner, ½kg (1 pound) of lean beef mince is sufficient for 4 people. The celery, onion, tomato and carrot, meanwhile, add a healthy amount of fiber and a truly impressive list of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Some of this nutrition is lost during cooking, so chopping any veggies left over into a side salad is a very good idea.
In keeping with the principles of G. I. dieting, the combination of protein, starch, and fiber helps the body to absorb and use the included calories gradually instead of sending them directly to fatty tissue.
Pro Tip: Many pasta dishes fall on presentation. Garnish with a few raw cherry tomatoes and fresh basil leaves to take your plate to the next level, and don’t forget some grated Parmesan cheese.
If the pitter-patter of tiny feet to your dinner table is often followed by cries of “I don’ want to eat green stuff!” this one for you.
Lasagna has the reputation of being a lot of work to make, and this is somewhat deserved. Using vegetables cuts out the need for cooking a separate meat sauce, however, meaning that the only real preparation is washing and slicing vegetables (or buying them ready for cooking), stirring up a béchamel sauce and grating some cheese. While you’re at it, why not make a second tray and freeze it, uncooked, for a rainy day, or at least one that involves overtime and traffic jams.
Containing cheese and butter (in the bechamel sauce), lasagna is also notorious for being laden with fat. How much you want to add is entirely up to you, though. There are plenty of béchamel recipes available with reduced calories, and you can melt the cheese into the sauce to spread the savory flavor around without using a huge amount. You would typically spread some sauce over each layer of vegetables and pasta sheets. Also, the total amount of fat in the baking tray is not as relevant as how much each portion contains. You can absolutely load up on vegetables to bulk up each serving size without many additional calories, right up to the point where the lasagna starts to fall apart when you serve it (more sauce will help the layers cohere). This gives you a low-calorie dish very high in essential nutrition.
There must be a thousand combinations of vegetables you can use, but for the sake of balanced nutrition, we’ll look at spinach and mushrooms. With a little garlic, onion and tomato puree, their flavors go wonderfully together, and you can usually buy packaged frozen spinach and sliced mushrooms in a ready-to-go format.
For vegetarians (or people who just don’t care for meat more than a few times a week), spinach and mushrooms are especially important nutrient sources. Between the two of them, they’re loaded with iron, phosphorus, B vitamins, zinc and micronutrients you will struggle to find in other sources. Even for non-vegetarians, these vegetables can aid in everything from reducing blood pressure to improving memory and mental clarity.
Pro Tip: Try to use three or four vegetables which go well together and are also different colors; bell peppers in various stages of ripeness are good. Put each vegetable in a different layer for visual appeal and to make every bite taste distinctive.
Linguine Pescatore or Frutti di Mare
There are few diets that can’t be improved by a little extra seafood, and not just an overcooked breaded fish fillet once a week, but a variety of shellfish, too. In Italy, where food rarely travels more than a few miles from the farm or docks before being consumed, this is very much a regional dish, made with freshly caught ingredients and often eaten within sight of the ocean. Fortunately, most supermarkets make cooking these dishes (fisherman’s pasta, or fruit of the sea) easy by offering frozen variety packs containing different kinds of seafood.
Aside from being some of the best sources of iodine and omega acids, seafood is a fantastically nutritious source of protein. The number of different nutrients the sea’s bounty provides affects everything from skeletal health to eyesight to mental function, which is why combining a variety of different types in one meal is such a good idea.
These recipes are low in fat and high in healthy protein but lack fiber, so serving with a few slices of wholewheat bread or a simple salad is a good idea.
Pro Tip: The frozen seafood you buy should already have been cleaned. Unless (and even if) you are cooking for children, keep the included shells for garnish and use alongside fresh herbs like those you added to the sauce. Nothing says “authentic” in quite the same way.
Grilled Vegetable Fusilli Salad
Carbohydrates, including pasta, certainly form part of a healthy diet, but empty calories shouldn’t take the place of nutritious food. Enter pasta salad, where a small amount of pasta can bring together some other ingredients to make up a highly nutritious and satisfying meal.
For this salad, though many combinations of ingredients can be used, let’s examine the health benefits of grilled zucchini, bell peppers, raw mange tout (young snow pea pods) and raw tomato. Grilling the former two, either in the oven or on a griddle pan, is easy while keeping the other two raw provides additional nutrition benefits.
Zucchini provides high levels of potassium and magnesium, which are essential components in heart and cardiovascular health. It also provides vitamin C, calcium and regulates water retention, resulting in skin that’s adequately moisturized without being puffy. The peppers further build up the vitamin C levels, provide complementary chemicals that improve eye health, as well as a huge catalog of beneficial organic chemicals including capsaicin, which you’ll have trouble finding in fruits other than peppers and chilies.
Since this dish is served cold, and we are already including the delicious smoky flavor notes of the grilled vegetables, we might as well serve the snow pea pods and tomato raw for additional textures. They also just happen to include nutrients such as vitamin K and a fantastic concentration of antioxidants; serving them raw prevents any of these being lost, though you’ll still benefit even if they’re cooked, particularly if this is done quickly or at low heat.
All four of these vegetables are extremely low in calories, so the energy you’re consuming lies principally in the pasta and the dressing – therefore the number of calories is totally under your control, and you can basically eat as much as you want.
Pro Tip: Fresh herbs, particularly when raw, have a vibrancy of flavor that the dried versions just can’t match, and offer numerous health benefits of their own. They’re also dirt cheap. Chopping a handful of fresh parsley and basil into your salad will elevate the appearance and taste in a dozen ways.
If eating a healthy diet is making you unhappy, you are probably just doing it wrong. Eliminating carbs completely may work for some people, but no pasta lover is going to take that lying down. If you are careful about what recipes you select and how you cook them, dozens of Italian delicacies can still be regular features on your dinner table. Buon Appetitio!