A bunch of veggies roasted, steamed or sautéed and served with some type of pasta is a meal we eat every week. Sometimes we eat it on multiple days. It is easy, and it can be absolutely yummy and healthy, if its made it right. There are infinite variations, and every time we make this we both think it is pretty great.
We keep vegetables on hand, both fresh and frozen. We almost universally have mushrooms of some type, fresh spinach and broccoli in the fridge. We keep them on hand because they are wholesome and extremely versatile, but even more importantly, because I really love these veggies. I can’t imagine what I’d eat during a week that I do not eat mushrooms and broccoli. Frozen peas make a frequent appearance on our plates too. There are a few short months in the year where we might have fresh, home grown and farmer’s market peas, but the rest of the year, frozen peas are quick to make and taste great. I am partial to fresh spinach. A huge bag of washed spinach is cheaper than lettuce. You can add a few handfuls to soup, pasta, quinoa, or even a packaged frozen entrée, if you eat them. Spinach adds calcium, antioxidants, flavor and if the food is warm, it cooks in a few minutes after you add it. I am not a big fan of frozen bricks of pre-cooked spinach. I think they might be the reason spinach got such a bad rap. It works fine for spinach dip, but it is otherwise, too dark and mushy for me.
The first key to a pasta meal being a healthy, lovely meal is veggies. Veggies! Vegetables are the absolute most powerful tool to healthful eating. They fill you up and they are full of good things like calcium, potassium, antioxidants and fiber with a very low-calorie count. The key is to try every veggie you can, get them fresh from a good source, or preserved in a wholesome manner, make sure they are prepared in a way that doesn’t ruin them and pile them on 3/4 of your plate. I love vegetables, which makes this easy. If you don’t, just try them, one at a time. Make a lot of the ones you like, and give the rest a chance. They are an acquired taste, but they are satisfying when they are the center of your meal. Tonight I sautéed garlic and a diced shallot in a little olive oil, then added mushrooms. When the mushrooms began to brown, I added a splash of pasta water, and then covered to pan to allow the broccoli and peas to steam. I didn’t cook the spinach at all. I placed two large handfuls into the bottom of the bowl I used to serve the veggies. When I added the veggies, the spinach wilted, but didn’t totally lose its shape or get soggy. I frequently roast veggies, and recently, I’ve also been steaming them in my Mom’s Bamboo steamer that she has had since the 1970′s. The entire key to veggies is not to overcook them to use a light touch with oil, salt or other seasonings. They don’t need it.
The next step to making this meal, of course, is the pasta. I make homemade pasta, and I have yet to post about it. It is delicious, but I’ll admit, I like to eat pasta a little more often than I have time to mix it and roll it out. I consider it to be a process to go through for a special occasion. Tonight, we had organic, whole grain angel hair pasta, cooked al dente, according to package directions. If you ate whole wheat pastas a few years ago and found it dry, grainy and generally too serious, you should try them again. There are whole grain pastas that have a delicious nutty texture, there are even some whole grain pastas that have no noticeable difference from traditional “white” pasta. Using whole grain adds a little stomach-filling fiber, lowers the glycemic index of your meal and helps nudge a week-night pasta meal in the direction of health. Also worth noting are fresh herbs. In the middle of winter, a big bunch of flat leaf parsley costs less than $2 at our grocery store. In the summer, we grow herbs, and buy them at the Farmer’s Market for pocket change. The addition of chopped herbs to pasta is unbelievable. Your eyes will thank you. Your tastebuds will thank you. Fresh herbs elevate a dish and only add good.
One out of two of us eats meat. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it is a good thing for Bjorn that he is a flexible meat eater. It makes it easier for me that he doesn’t expect meat to be a central part of every meal. I enjoy preparing meat for a special occasion and Bjorn makes it whenever he wants it, and he swears he gets enough. There are many meat eaters who don’t feel like they’ve had a meal if meat isn’t center stage. I think we’ve all gotten the memo advising us that people aren’t supposed to eat as much meat as we did before we knew where our next meal was coming from, or we needed to fuel ourselves through 12 hours of hard physical labor. Reframing meat as a dish that you have for a special occasion opens up a world of opportunity for meat to be a meaningful garnish. Here enters Soppressata. It is a flavorful hard salami. Just a few slices, casing removed, cut into little chunks and heated briefly puts a tasty bit of meat on the omnivore’s plate and rounds out their meal.
Finally, there is sauce. We don’t always have sauce with our pasta and veggies. I like to use spaghetti sauce, or a can of San Marzano tomatoes, torn into chunks when we feel like tomatoes. If we aren’t feeling tomato-y, I would use a touch of olive oil or butter and a sprinkling of grated cheese or nothing. Tonight I made a simple creamy sauce. This isn’t an “every night” sort of thing though. We had a little heavy cream left over from the Soufflés Bjorn made for Valentine’s day and I couldn’t let it go to waste. I melted the tiniest bit of butter and added a sprinkling of flour. Once it cooked a bit, I added the cream and let it thicken before adding a bit of pepper and grated Asiago. Just like the meat, if you are going to use butter, oil or creamy sauce, if you use a light touch, you can enjoy the richness without consuming excessive calories.
I want to live in a world where I can have my pasta and eat it too. I am finding that if I keep an eye on portions and make thoughtful choices about ingredients and preparation, I can enjoy my plate of pasta without feeling gluttonous or guilty.