Here's the real skinny on pasta sauces

June 19, 1994|By Mary Carroll | Mary Carroll,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Pasta has been an American favorite for almost a decade, probably because it's a wonderful instant food. But sauces loaded with cream and calories don't make it during swimsuit season.

Luckily, warm-weather noodle dishes can make use of fresh vegetables, low-fat cheeses and dairy products, and plenty of fresh or dried herbs. With a low-fat topping, pasta becomes truly a diet food, the kind that can help you shed pounds and bring health to the heart.

Start by simmering aromatic vegetables -- onion, garlic, fennel, celery leaves -- in a small amount of wine or defatted broth. Add color with diced sweet red or green pepper, corn kernels, yellow or green summer squash, chopped parsley or basil. Vegetables only lightly sauteed have a tender-crisp texture to contrast with the soft noodles.

The sauce must adhere to the noodles, so at this point I add something creamy, yet low-fat. Low-fat dairy products work well but can separate if heated; to prevent this, mix fat-free sour cream or low- or nonfat yogurt with a small amount of cornstarch before heating. The cornstarch will stabilize the dairy product as long as it is not boiled. (A good rule of thumb is 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch per 1/2 cup low-fat or nonfat dairy product.)

For an Asian flavor, I substitute a few teaspoons of tahini, an

Asian and Middle Eastern sesame paste similar to peanut butter. When thinned with defatted stock and seasoned with grated fresh ginger root, chopped cilantro, lemongrass and other Asian herbs, it makes a creamy and delicious sauce. Try flat noodles such as buckwheat soba or wheat udon.

Dishes like these become truly instant if the pasta is cooked ahead. Extra noodles, boiled to al dente stage and rinsed to remove excess starch after cooking, will keep five days if refrigerated in self-sealing plastic bags. Cooked noodles need only be immersed in boiling water for 30 seconds to reheat.

Sauteed Noodles With Spring Vegetables

Makes 4 servings

Spring vegetables highlight this easy entree.

1 teaspoon canola oil

1/4 cup dry sherry

2 cups thinly sliced Chinese cabbage

1 carrot, julienne

4 green onions, sliced

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root

1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)

1 teaspoon dark sesame oil

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

4 cups hot cooked noodles

Heat oil and sherry in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add cabbage, carrot, onions, ginger root and mushrooms and saute 3 minutes.

Transfer mixture to bowl.

Add mirin, sesame oil, soy sauce and cooked noodles to skillet. Heat through. Add vegetable mixture and saute 1 minute, stirring frequently. Serve hot.

Each serving contains approximately: 311 calories; 339 milligrams sodium; 53 milligrams cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 17 percent calories from fat; 47 grams carbohydrate; 12 grams protein; 4 grams fiber.

Chilled Hot and Spicy Noodles

Makes 4 servings

This spicy dish was adapted from a higher-fat recipe in Gourmet magazine.

1 tablespoon sesame tahini or smooth peanut butter

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons defatted stock

1 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1/4 cup water

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1/4 cup seeded and minced sweet red pepper

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

3/4 pound soba, udon or fettucini noodles

1/4 cup minced green onion

Whisk together tahini, sesame oil and stock until smooth in small bowl.

Add soy sauce, water, garlic, sweet red pepper, ginger root, vinegar, honey and cayenne. Mix well.

Cook noodles in rapidly boiling water until al dente, 7 to 8 minutes. Drain in colander and rinse under cold water. Drain well. Toss with tahini sauce. Top with green onion. Serve immediately.

Each serving contains approximately: 220 calories; 337 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 25 percent calories from fat; 37 grams carbohydrate; 9 grams protein; 5 grams fiber.

Creamy Noodles With Artichoke Hearts

Makes 4 servings

I've reduced this decadent dish to fit into a low-fat diet and still be delicious.

1/4 cup defatted stock

2 tablespoons minced garlic or to taste

1 cup quartered canned unmarinated artichoke hearts, drained and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms

1/4 cup seeded and sliced sweet red pepper

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1/2 cup fat-free sour cream mixed with 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

salt, white pepper

4 cups hot cooked fettucini

Marinate artichoke hearts in balsamic vinegar for 20 minutes; drain and set aside. Bring stock to boil in skillet.

Add garlic, artichokes, mushrooms and sweet red pepper and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley, sour cream and salt and pepper to taste. Toss with hot cooked fettucini.

Each serving contains approximately: 418 calories; 95 milligrams sodium; 211 milligrams cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 19 percent calories from fat; 317 grams carbohydrate; 74 grams protein; 4 grams fiber.

Mary Carroll is the author of the "No Cholesterol (No Kidding!) Cookbook," Rodale Press.)

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