This was meant to be an uber healthy dinner. The kind that undoes the damage from one too many bowls of ice cream, or an overdose of cheese and pork fat. Whenever I make any recipe from from Heidi Swanson's healthy recipe journal, 101 Cookbooks, I feel as though I am doing my body good -- like when I was younger and could still drink a glass of milk without gagging. Heidi's innovative concoctions always seem nourishing, like they really could make me healthier, stronger and capable of winning marathons.
Except, of course, when they become overloaded with ooey gooey cheese, nuts and generous pours of olive oil.
While this baked pasta dish relies on simple and generally heart-healthy ingredients for flavor (lemon zest, garlic, onions, olive oil), it is deceptively caloric -- particularly when eaten as a main dish rather than an accompaniment to a lean protein. This is problematic for a girl, like me, who needs a good balance of carbs and protein at every meal in order to avoid headaches, hunger pangs and general grouchiness.
In order to boost up the satisfaction levels of this dish, I added garbanzo beans to the mix, topped it with a tablespoon of parmesan, served it with a side of steamed broccollini, and then, when I still wasn't full from the serving pictured above, went back to finish the rest of the pasta in my mini casserole pan. It tasted good -- especially the crispy bits that had schlacked themselves to the sides of the dish during the baking process -- but left me feeling a little too light. Like I'd barely eaten at all.
I often tell people that if it weren't for steak (and okay, bacon and fish), I could easily become a vegetarian. I love tofu, go ga-ga for tempeh, and am perfectly happy when the incredible edible egg is the centerpoint of my meal. Yet, despite my taste for soy-based products and chicken embryos, my experiences eating a dinner like this prove that my bold statement is not quite accurate. I could be a vegetarian, but it wouldn't be easy. I'd add beans, nuts and cheese to everything, and then, eat more than my fair share when it still didn't fill me up. Without a protein-rich chicken breast to take up stomach space, I'd overdose on carbs, and then find myself hungry again a couple hours later. In other words, it would be a vegetarian recipe for disaster (ie. weight gain and extreme irritability).
That's not to say that I don't still love 101 Cookbooks, and the fabulous veggie-friendly recipes I've found on the site. I love Heidi's culinary vision and appreciate that she encourages cooks (and aspiring cooks) to experiment with simple, fresh ingredients. At the same time, however, I know that in order to make her healthy recipes work and still be healthy for me, I need to adapt them to fulfill my carnivoric needs. The next time I make this dish, I think I would reduce the amount of pasta and cheese, cut out the garbanzo beans that clock in at 100 calories per 1/2 cup, and mix it with ground turkey or lean strips of chicken breast instead. That's my version of healthy.
Or at least it is until I dig into the freezer for a bowl of ice cream...
Baked Pasta Casserole
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup uncooked whole wheat Barilla penne
1/4 cup shallots, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup chicken broth
1 ounce mozzarella, shredded
1 tablespoon parmesan, grated
1 cup, well-chopped fresh spinach
2 tablespoons, slivered almonds, toasted
1/3 cup garbanzo beans
Sea salt, pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a small casserole dish or baking pan.
Boil the pasta in salted water per package instructions. Drain pasta, toss with chicken broth, set aside.
In the meantime, heat a bit of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high. Saute the onions with a couple pinches of salt for a few minutes (or if you want a bit more depth of flavor until caramelized). Stir in garlic and garbanzo beans. Stir in spinach. Cook for just about 20 seconds, until the spinach collapses a bit. Remove from heat and stir in the almonds and 1 teaspoon of the zest and the tablespoon of lemon juice. Add to pasta and stir - mixing extremely well, a minute or so.
Now sprinkle the bottom of baking dish with the rest of the zest. Add a layer of the pasta to the bottom of the baking pan, sprinkle with some of the cheese, add more pasta, then more cheese. Finish with the parmesan. Cover with foil and bake for 10-15 minutes or until cheese on top is bubbly and melty.