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10 Secrets to Healthy Pasta

  • Claire Benoist

    Go the Whole (Wheat) Way

    You already know to reach for whole-wheat pasta over the refined stuff, but what about all the other kinds now on shelves, like those made with brown rice or spelt? Unless you're avoiding gluten, whole-wheat is a great bet. "Whole-wheat pasta provides more of the healthy carbs, fiber, vitamins and minerals than standard pasta and even some other whole-grain varieties do," says Laura Hartung, R.D., a nutritionist and personal trainer in the Boston area.

    Quinoa pasta is another smart option because it contains high amounts of proteins. Be sure to read the package, though, as a cup of cooked quinoa pasta can contain 15 percent more calories than a cup of cooked whole-wheat pasta.

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    Say Goodbye to Soggy Noodles

    Pasta cooked until al dente—rather than for the amount of time indicated on the box—is better for your health. Research shows that when pasta is cooked longer, its carbs break down faster during digestion, making your blood sugar levels spike and then crash. To tell if pasta is al dente, taste a noodle after boiling for about eight minutes. It should be firm, not chalky or mushy.

  • Claire Benoist

    Kick Up the Protein

    Think of all the times you've called penne with some red sauce dinner—and how less than satisfied you were afterward. The reason? The dish lacks protein. "Pasta doesn't deserve to be vilified," says Tami Lyon, R.D., the founder of Healthy Living Nutritional Counseling and Consulting in San Francisco. "But making it into a complete meal by adding protein is vital." This will keep you fuller longer because it slows the absorption of carbs into your system. Combine 15 to 20 grams of lean protein, such as 3 ounces of cooked wild salmon or turkey sausage, with 1 to 1 1/2 cups of cooked pasta.

    Makes: 4 servings

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  • Conserve Water

    As pasta boils, starches leach into the water; adding back some of this liquid to the cooked pasta can enhance the taste of your dish. You can also use it to make a sauce: Once the pasta is al dente, reserve 1/2 cup of cooking water and drain. Return the pasta to the pot, add 1/4 cup cheese (grated Parmesan or ricotta) and 1/4 cup of reserved cooking water and stir until sauce is creamy (add more cooking water if necessary). Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

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    Make Your Own Sauce

    Store-bought marinaras might be a time-saver when you're in a hurry or hungry (or both), but they can be laden with sodium, sugar, oils, and preservatives. Luckily, making a batch from scratch takes only 10 minutes (yes, really). This marinara gets its sweetness from grated carrot, which also delivers some fiber.

    10-Minute Marinara

    Finely grate 1/2 carrot and 1/2 celery stalk. Pour one 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes with basil into a bowl and use your hands to coarsely crush tomatoes. In a saucepan, heat 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat. Add 4 lightly smashed garlic cloves and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes. Add grated carrot and celery and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook 5 minutes.

    Turn up the heat: Add 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes with the garlic.

    Go Mediterranean: Stir 3 tablespoons chopped green olives and 1 tablespoon rinsed and drained capers into the tomatoes.

  • Claire Benoist

    Roast for the Most

    While you're waiting for pasta water to boil, you can get a head start on roasting vegetables for your dish. Be sure to chop the veggies—we love fennel, asparagus, and mushrooms—into uniform pieces for even cooking, and don't overcrowd the pan, so they'll caramelize. Lightly toss the vegetables with olive oil and season with salt. Roast at 425° until tender and lightly charred, 15 to 20 minutes, then mix into cooked pasta with some reserved cooking water and grated cheese.

    Makes: 4 servings

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  • Claire Benoist

    "Noodle" Around

    No doubt you've spotted thin strands of zucchini standing in for traditional spaghetti. Why stop there? "Most Americans fall short of the recommended nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day," Hartung says. "And research shows that people who eat more plant sources are smaller around the middle." Bulk up the variety of nutrients, colors and textures by tossing cooked whole-wheat spaghetti, linguine, or fettuccine with ribbons of carrots, parsnips, or asparagus or dark leafy greens, including Swiss chard, collard greens, or kale.

    Makes: 4 servings

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    Repeat After Us: Oil and Water Don't Mix

    If you're tempted to add olive oil to the pasta water to prevent noodles from sticking together, forget about it. The oil will cling to the drained pasta, making it more slippery, which can prevent the sauce from adhering.

  • Claire Benoist

    Cheat Your Way to Creamy

    Calorie-laden sauces are what typically give pasta dishes a bad rap. Case in point: An order of fettuccine alfredo at a restaurant can weigh in at around 2,000 calories, Hartung says. But that doesn't mean you have to forgo satisfying your creamy pasta cravings. For a velvety sauce without cream or loads of cheese, mix a couple of spoonfuls of ricotta or plain yogurt with hot pasta. Another quick trick for a satisfying sauce: Whisk together 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons grated cheese like Parmesan and some reserved cooking water and toss with hot pasta until creamy.

    Makes: 4 servings

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  • Jeff Harris

    Go Green

    Sneak more leafy greens into your diet by adding them to pasta. Follow this formula: In a large skillet, wilt the chopped leaves of 1 large or 2 small bunches of greens with 2 teaspoons of olive oil and 1 chopped garlic clove; toss with cooked pasta. Then take it up a notch with these good-for-you combinations.

    If You're Using... Add
    Escarole 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts + a pinch red chile flakes
    Kale 2 tablespoons chopped hazelnuts + 2 tablespoons capers
    Swiss Chard 1 cup white beans + grated lemon zest garnish
    Spinach 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds + 3 tablespoons raisins
    Arugula 2 pieces crumbled bacon +
    2 tablespoons sliced almonds