Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Living in the Pasta

Let me be quite clear: I will never be an Atkins fanatic or any sort of low-carb counter. I think it's been perfectly obvious on these pages that I love my grains -- and the less refined or processed, the better (well, for the most part).

So I'm sure you will understand completely when I say that after a dark, dreary day, I want a comforting dinner of pasta.

I have my usual quick-fix pasta dinners of broccoli-walnut pasta and good ol' spaghetti, and if I'm feeling slightly more ambitious, I might whip up something even more nourishing, like pasta e ceci.

For Christmas Day, I joined my "family" in town (including my adorable "nephews") for dinner, and though I hadn't been interested in eating much all that weekend, I tucked into the Absent-Minded Professor's spinach-cheese stuffed pasta shells with reckless abandon, along with a second helping of salad. And the best gift given to me that night was an extra pan of that pasta to take home and see me through the break. (Thank you! Thank you!)

When I visited the grocery store this past weekend in search of new local foods to try, I discovered a new brand of locally-produced cheeses and dairy products -- hardly surprising since we're in Amish country here. And when I spotted the part-skim ricotta cheese, the memory of those pasta shells came back to me and gave me an idea for a quick, comforting dinner this week.

I pulled out the recipe for "Penne with Creamy Walnut Sauce" from the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook and decided to make that tonight. Personally, I think the recipe title is misleading, because the sauce is more cheese and spinach than walnuts, but since I like it so much, I'm not going to argue the point. (Much.)

Call it a semi-local meal: though the whole wheat pasta, frozen spinach, parmesan cheese, and spices were not grown or produced locally, the dish did include that Amish country ricotta, basil from my own pot, locally grown walnuts, and some of the oven-dried cherry tomatoes I made this summer.

Like a rich, creamy pesto, the sauce coated the pasta beautifully (it works so well on any chunky pasta), and the tomatoes added just the right contrast in color and flavor. Add a glass of red wine (though preferably not the Merlot I found in the root cellar while cleaning last week -- I think I missed its peak!) and you're set for dinner.

(Of course, I always think that Italian food should be followed by chocolate, but I didn't have a chocolate dessert at hand, so I made do with the last of the pumpkin drop cookies. Not a hardship, really!)

The beauty of this pasta sauce recipe is that it makes a large amount (at least if you're cooking for one) -- so I will be enjoying this dish for many more nights.

Unless... I decide to use it as filling for lasagna or pasta shells...

Now there's a pastability!

Creamy Spinach Pesto Pasta

Here's my variation on the Penne with Creamy Walnut Sauce recipe from the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook. Being a lazy cook at times, I find it's easiest just to throw everything into a bowl and puree it with my handy immersion blender... carefully, of course.

1 pkg frozen spinach, thawed, or 10 oz fresh spinach, steamed and drained
1/2 c toasted walnuts
2 c low-fat ricotta or cottage cheese
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c loosely packed fresh basil
1/2 tsp salt
ground black pepper to taste
1 to 1 1/2 lbs chunky pasta, preferably whole wheat
1 heaping T oven- or sun-dried tomatoes

In a food processor or blender, combine the spinach, walnuts, cheese, garlic, Parmesan, basil, and salt and puree until smooth, working in batches if necessary. Add pepper to taste and set aside.

Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta, then return it to the pan and add enough sauce to coat the pasta to your liking. Toss in oven- or sun-dried tomatoes and combine thoroughly.

Serves 6 allegedly, but I usually stretch this out over several nights, only cooking as much pasta as I need on any given night.


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