Come out of pasta hibernation with lighter sauces and spring veggies.
Primavera. Just the sound of that lovely Italian word for spring brings to mind welcome signs of the coming season: the first robins peeping outside the window; the turning of clocks forward; the lightening up of Italian pasta dishes.
‘Lightening up’ can mean lighter in flavor and also lighter in calories. Chefs can use multiple techniques to achieve these ends.
Make Flavors Lighter and Brighter
The bright flavor of lemon wakes up pasta dishes. Mildly acidic, it's the perfect antidote to the end-of-winter blahs.
Piccata (which roughly translates to ‘piquant,’ or tart and zesty) brings not only zingy lemon but also tangy capers to the table. It's a versatile, simple sauce that goes great on angel hair pasta, gnocchi or fettuccine and it can be menued in a variety of ways: just add a protein for Chicken Piccata, Veal Piccata or even Tofu Piccata.
Another plus with Piccata? “The flour used to dust on the chicken thickens the sauce without cream,” says William Scully, director of dining services, Bennington College, Bennington, VT.
Scully plans on adding a new spring pasta dish this semester, which includes artichoke hearts, fresh plum tomatoes, garlic and basil; then at the last minute, in a dollop of Mediterranean inspiration, it will be topped with feta cheese.
“The feta cheese can be left out or switched with tofu for a lighter, vegan version of the dish,” Scully says.
Emphasize the Vegetables
Come spring, fresh vegetables can be the crowning glory on pasta dishes, and can highlight a commitment to a local farm or collective.
Scully will use all fresh, local vegetables in Pasta Primavera, along with herbs from the kitchen garden.
Baby carrots, peas, green beans, Swiss chard and squash will all be amping up the fresh flavor of spring pasta dishes at Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI, says Chef Robert Lavoie, director of culinary operations. Lavoie has advice for using Swiss chard (a nutritionists' darling as of late) in healthful pasta dishes:
“Chop up the chard, stem and all, julienne it or rough chop, and just sauté it with a little olive oil,” Lavoie says. “Chard is not a green that needs to be cooked for six hours.” He makes a pasta dish that incorporates the chard, cannellini beans, garlic, lemon juice, fresh baby spinach, and fresh diced tomatoes.
If you choose just one vegetable, broccoli is a bulky, vitamin-packed addition to pasta — just throw it right into the salted pasta water while the pasta cooks. “It takes up space and it's healthy,” says Clinical Dietician Lauren Hirschfeld, MS, RD, LD, Roper St. Francis Healthcare, Charleston, SC.
Using frozen spinach in a cream sauce (pick one that doesn't have too many calories) is one of the tricks Hirschfeld uses to save time, add flavor, and go healthier. Just add pasta and shrimp, and you have a gorgeous green dish, she says.
Build Flavor with Less Fat
The spring classic Pasta Primavera, when it's made with a heavy, creamy sauce, is a bit of a contradiction: It has the wonderful vegetables of spring — so healthful. But also a creamy, heavy sauce — not so healthful.
So, in addition to letting the verdant local veggies really shine, Scully finishes the dish with olive oil and fresh herbs. Not cream and butter.
The use of super fresh and fragrant herbs and just a little grated Asiago or Parmigianno Reggiano cheese can take the place of a heavy, creamy sauce in just about any traditionally creamy pasta dish you can imagine — for a slightly different, but miles lighter — spring pasta plate.
Substitute Leaner Protein
Chef Lorenzo Boni of Barilla North America was born in Bologna, Italy, so he knows meat sauce. He also knows how to make it healthier.
“Bolognese sauce is traditionally made with a combination of meats. But you can use less ground pork and more lean beef, and you can also use ground celery, onions and carrots in equal measure to the meat,” Boni says, adding, “Don't use pancetta if you want it to be lighter.”
In Italy, the Bolognese recipe — and many other recipes — are “not set in stone,” Boni says. “Chefs use what they have.”
Use Fewer Ingredients
Another cue from Italian chefs is using fewer ingredients for a more simple, cleaner taste. In Italy, chefs use fresh tomatoes in sauce frequently. Fresh tomatoes can help you out by making their own sauce as they simmer, eliminating the need for more fat.
Cannellini beans are another component that can thicken sauces without adding fat and calories — adding instead good protein and the many health benefits of beans.
Boni also recommends a pesto sauce — basil, oil, pine nuts and “just a touch of cheese.” Pesto has an intensely ‘basil’ flavor (kind of like licorice that was somehow grown in the garden — in a very good way) and goes perfectly with gnocchi or just regular spaghetti.
Playing up the naturally healthy flavors of vegetables and herbs is a great way to lighten up pasta and can also be a strategy for adding some unexpected excitement to a dish.
“There are always a few extra vegetables that people wouldn't expect” in many of her most popular recipes, Hirschfeld, the dietician, says.
Lasagna is a stealth-health home run, she adds. Take whatever vegetables — fresh, frozen or canned — that you have on hand, and “sneak them into lasagna.”
Winter's over. Step away from heavy comfort-food pasta and invite your customers out to the garden!