Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Smarter pasta dinner!

After a rather wimpy winter, spring is almost here.  It was so warm yesterday that I didn't shiver once on my walk back from the gym with a mop of wet hair.  That's a big deal in March in Pittsburgh, people!  But, it should come as no surprise that I'm determined to get a few more days out of my snowflake placemats until the calendar reads March 20th, the official start to spring.

To me, spring means flowers, rainstorms, cleaning, Girl Scout cookies, and Easter.  It also that means swimsuit season is a few months away.  You can bet that everyone and his brother are already setting their sights on bathroom scales and dinner plates, swearing off carbs for the next three months.

Cleeeeearly these same people are unaware of the possibilities to make a pasta-centric dish the most balanced and hearty thing you'll ever eat.  And, I even used a smaller dinner plate!  Check it out:

Pasta with white beans, tomatoes, and onions!

A few simple tweaks to your average pasta dinner and you've suddenly got a quick one pot wonder meal on your hands plate.

Swap regular pasta for a whole wheat, vegetable, or high fiber variety that packs more nutrition.  I used a box of Ronzoni Smart Taste fusilli.  We've been loving this stuff lately because it has 2.5 times the fiber of regular pasta and loads of calcium and vitamin D.  The fiber argument is no longer that of an elderly person's or commercials featuring Jamie Lee Curtis :)  Meals high in fiber will fill you up and keep you feeling satisfied for hours longer, since fibrous foods take longer to digest.

If that isn't enough to convince you to switch, how about this reason: it just tastes better! 

Enough pasta talk for the moment and onto the sauce.

Let's discuss my brief skepticism regarding beans in a pasta dish.  It was silly and totally unfounded.  The end.  The sweet tomatoes and onions mingle with the butter and cook down into one incredibly flavorful yet simple sauce!  Who knew that's all you needed for a great tomato sauce?  Makes me rethink those huge jars of Prego I used to buy.  Simple is good, folks.

Throw in some beans for tons of inexpensive and lean protein, and buon appetito!  You've got a one dish meal loaded with levels of flavor from the sauce and herbs and -- don't forget -- salty and nutty parmesan cheese on top. 

I think this is the first time I can ever remember serving pasta without an obligatory salad on the side, eaten mindlessly while looking forward to the main course.  What can I say?  I have a serious case of vegetable guilt these days.

But, vegetable guilt be gone!  This dish checked all of the nutrition boxes and, more importantly, the flavor boxes.  It was even better as leftovers the next day.  And the aesthetics of this were pretty stellar, as well.  Who doesn't love a nice pasta spiral?

Pretty food and a pretty placemat.  Yes, snowflakes are pretty.  Even in March.  Even when it's going to be 71 degrees outside today.  Even when I'm going bikini shopping this weekend.  Deal with it.

And hey, don't let that empty plate sadden you.  Remember that it's Pi Day -- please celebrate accordingly and have a slice for me :)  Or make your own and share the love!

One year ago: Irish beef hand pies
Two years ago: One bowl chocolate cupcakes

Pasta with Tomatoes and Beans
(adapted slightly from The New York Times)
-serves 5-6

2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with juice
Pinch of granulated sugar
Ground black pepper
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
3/4 pound pasta, any shape
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  In a large skillet, heat butter over medium and add onion, cooking and stirring until tender, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic, and stir together until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes with juice and a pinch of sugar. Raise the heat slightly and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes are bubbling vigorously.  Lower the heat to medium-low, stirring and mashing occasionally, until tomatoes have cooked down into a thick, fragrant sauce, 15 to 20 minutes.

Stir in the beans and the herbs, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

When the pasta water comes to a boil, salt generously and add the pasta.  Cook al dente, following the recommendations on the package but checking about a minute before the indicated time. When the pasta is just about done, check to see if the tomato sauce seems dry. If so, add up to 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the pan and stir. Drain the pasta, toss with the sauce and serve, passing the cheese for sprinkling.

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