Confession: I am not that into pasta. I can’t really put my finger on why, but it really just doesn’t get me excited about dinner. But my reality is that I feed kids every single night and they do get to weigh in on the weekly menu plan. Also, I am really fond of my sanity and what can possibly be easier than pasta?
Trust me, we eat our fair share of simple noodles with butter and cheese, but it is not so much harder or time-consuming to turn a pasta dish into a really nourishing vegetable-driven meal that kids will like and adults can feel good about. The key is to reverse the ratio of “sauce” to pasta. Instead of a pasta dish with some veg, what I typically serve is more like a vegetable dish with some pasta. I wish I could take credit for the approach, or the alliteration that has stuck with me all these years, but reversing the ratio started with one of Mark Bittman’s Minimalist columns in the New York Times back in 2007.
Fresh vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini are versatile, matching well with tomato sauces just as easily as plain butter and Parmesan. But a trip to the grocery store is not required. All-stars of the freezer section like peas and spinach can be added to nearly any pasta dish. Same for pantry staples like canned beans and artichokes. And leftovers. Chop up the half pepper/carrot/celery/onion/herbs left in the fridge and throw them in there too. I like to have at least as much vegetable as pasta, if not more.
To do this in one pot, I use a sieve with a long handle to blanch and then drain each batch of vegetables before using the same water for the pasta. Once the multi-tasking water has been drained off, the pot is then used for sauce. Everything can be reassembled in either the pot or a large bowl.
Whole wheat pasta gives the dish an additional boost of protein, fiber and fillingness. If you are a skeptic of whole wheat pasta (Hi, Mom!), I totally get it. But you might consider revisiting the idea if you haven’t tried it in a while. When whole wheat pasta hit the mainstream a few years back, it was usually gluey and bitter. But that isn’t the case anymore. I rely Delallo brand, but there are other good options as well. Just be sure to read the label for a short list of ingredients (the only ingredient required is whole wheat durum flour) and a high protein and fiber content. Otherwise, you are just buying white pasta with premium marketing. Or stick with white pasta if it makes you happy. With vegetables making up the bulk of the dish, a little white pasta isn’t going to hurt a thing.
8 oz shaped whole wheat pasta
1 cup of frozen peas
6 zucchini, julienned on a mandoline or sliced into even coins
a few leaves of kale, torn into bite sized pieces
1 T butter or olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2-3springs of thyme or a teaspoon or dried thyme or oregano (optional)
1 clove of garlic
1 T flour
1-2 cups of stock (you can also use water or milk if you don’t have stock)
2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese plus more for garnish
Bring a large pot of water (with a few T of salt) to a boil. Place peas in a long handled sieve or strainer and submerge in boiling water until just done (approx 3 minutes after the water returns to boiling). Place cooked peas in large bowl and cook the sliced zucchini for approximately 1 minute – it should have softened slightly but keep its texture and color. You may have to do this in batches in order to cook evenly. Last, cook the torn kale for 1-2 minutes, using a wooden spoon to keep the leaves submerged. (All of the veg can be cooked ahead of time and reheated in the sauce.)
Cook the pasta for the time recommended on the packaging. I use a coffee mug to scoop a bit of pasta water for the sauce. If I remember, which is less than half of the time. Drain the pasta and set aside.
Sauté the onion and herbs in the butter until the onion is softened and turning translucent. Add the flour and stir into a paste. Cook for a minute, stirring. Gradually add 1 cup of stock or milk, stirring continuously so that the flour paste doesn’t get clumpy. Simmer for about 2 minutes until the sauce begins to thicken. Turn off heat.
Add the pasta into the sauce and stir to coat. If the sauce is too thick, it can be let down with water (the pasta water or plain water) or more milk or stock. Tasting it is the best way to decide which will be best. Add the vegetables and the grated Parmesan into the pot and gently stir to distribute sauce and mix everything thoroughly. Serve immediately with additional Parmesan on top.
Other optional additions:
Add dried crushed red peppers when sautéing the onion.
Add lemon zest, chopped parsley or chopped basil as seasoning/garnish before serving.
Substitute any vegetables you may have on hand.
Add chickpeas, chopped chicken, ham or sausage for more protein.