Try Economical, Versatile Pasta For Dinner

photo by alivmann courtesy of morguefile

Boil. Drain. Serve. Even after a long day, most of us can manage the cooking directions for pasta.

Not only is preparing pasta easy, but pasta also is an economical and versatile menu item. In challenging economic times, consumers stretch their food dollars with pasta-based casseroles and soups more often.

Most American pasta is made from durum wheat, which is milled to form semolina. A dough is prepared by mixing semolina with water. The dough is extruded through a die (a metal disc with holes in it) under pressure and cut to the appropriate length.

The size and shape of the holes in the die determine the shape of the pasta. Shapes ranging from spirals to cartoon characters are possible. Finally, the pasta is dried and packaged.

Sometimes other ingredients are added. Products labeled “egg noodles,” for example, must contain 5.5 percent egg by weight.

Pasta is fortified with iron and B vitamins. The B vitamin folic acid can lower the risk for certain birth defects, so it’s an especially important nutrient for women of child-bearing age.

Pasta manufacturers also are adding “better for you” pasta varieties to their product lines. These include whole-grain pasta and pasta with added fiber or other nutrients.

On Nutrition Facts labels, 1 cup of cooked pasta is considered a typical serving size. At 200 calories, 1 cup of cooked pasta has the same number of calories as two slices of bread.

Next time you prepare pasta, fill a 1-cup measuring cup with cooked pasta. Place it on a plate and remember this image when you size up your servings.

Chances are you will receive three or more servings of pasta on your plate when you eat pasta at a restaurant. You may want to ask for a to-go box at the start of your meal so you get two meals for the price of one.

Consider your serving sizes, but think about your preferred pasta sauce, too. White sauces, such as Alfredo sauce, are much higher in fat and calories than most red sauces. One-half cup of tomato-based spaghetti/marinara sauce has about 110 calories and 3 grams of fat. Restaurant-style Alfredo sauce has about 300 calories and 28 grams of fat per half-cup serving.

Have you decided on tomorrow’s dinner menu? Be sure not to overcook the pasta. Here’s some advice from the National Pasta Association:

  • For every pound of pasta to cook, allow at least 4 quarts of water.
  • Bring water to a boil before adding the pasta. (Adding salt is optional. Skipping adding salt is advisable from a nutrition standpoint.)
  • Return water to a boil and time according to the package directions. If you are making a baked dish, such as lasagna, slightly undercook the pasta by one-third of the cooking time.
  • Remove a piece of pasta and taste test. While some people literally throw pasta strands against the wall to test doneness, save on your walls. Pasta is best cooked “al dente,” literally “to the tooth.” Remove a piece of pasta from the pan and taste. The pasta should be somewhat firm when you bite.
  • Drain pasta. You do not need to rinse pasta unless you want to cool it prior to adding it to a salad.

Try this easy-to-make recipe courtesy of Iowa State University.

Skillet Spinach Lasagna

1/2 pound lean ground beef
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced (or 1/4 tsp. garlic powder)
3 c. spaghetti sauce (26 to 28 ounces)
1 c. water
8 ounces wide noodles
1 (10-ounce) package chopped spinach, thawed
1 (12-ounce) container low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese
1/2 c. (4 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
Optional: fresh or canned, drained sliced mushrooms

Cook ground beef, onions and garlic together in a large skillet or electric frying pan. Stir to prevent sticking. Drain the fat. Add spaghetti sauce and water to skillet and bring to a boil. Add uncooked noodles, stir, cover with lid, turn down the heat and cook five minutes. Squeeze the thawed spinach with your clean hands to remove the juice and then stir into the pan. Add mushrooms if you like. Cover and simmer for five minutes. Spoon cottage cheese over the top. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, put the lid on and let it heat another five to 10 minutes until heated through and noodles are tender.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 270 calories, 36 grams (g) of carbohydrate, 5 g of fat and 2 g of fiber.