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Mama Mia! Plant-Forward Pasta Makeover, Part 1

Updated: Oct 21, 2020


A steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs is sooo good, and it’s not so much that meat and carbs are necessarily “bad“ for you (subjects that could star in their own blog posts), but most of us could stand to consume a lot less of them, while almost none of us get enough veggies. It’s really about the right balance. Meanwhile, when you think, “Mediterranean Diet,” what comes to mind may be Nona’s ziti or your local Italian pizza house, but it‘s actually a pattern of eating followed by some of the most vibrant, longest-living populations on the planet. And unlike the old food pyramid of yesteryear (yes, I know I’m dating myself here) that stood on a wide base of starches, with meat and dairy sitting staunchly just above, and a few fruits and vegetables sprinkled in near the top (hmm, I wonder if there was any industry lobbying involved there?), the Mediterranean Pyramid, recommended by the Harvard School of Nutrition and Public Health, is almost flipped upside down. The stuff that comes from the garden makes up the bulk, filled in by whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds, and accented with sparing amounts of quality animal protein, predominantly fatty fish. Study after study confirms that a plant-forward diet, especially one rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, significantly decreases one‘s risk of developing a host of chronic inflammation-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. It appears that eating enough of the right foods can actually turn off certain disease-causing genes.

It can be a challenge working in the recommended 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, especially if you are accustomed to planning your meals around animal protein and starch. Next week, we will take a look at decreasing meat and dairy in pasta recipes, while increasing the veggie power.

One modern-day strategy to up the produce ratio is to substitute some of the noodles in traditional pasta dishes with vegetables cut in non-traditional ways. Zucchini can be peeled into long noodles (exclude the seeds) and topped with your favorite sauce or layered into a lasagna. For al dente zucchini, salt liberally, allow to drain in a colander, then squeeze out the excess moisture before briefly cooking.

I love this recipe from Eating Well Magazine: Zucchini Noodles with Avocado Pesto & Shrimp

5-6 medium zucchini (2 1/4-2 1/2 pounds total), trimmed

¾ teaspoon salt, divided

1 ripe avocado

1 cup packed fresh basil leaves

¼ cup unsalted shelled pistachios

2 tablespoons lemon juice

¼ teaspoon ground pepper

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil plus 2 tablespoons, divided

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound raw shrimp (21-25 count), peeled and deveined, tails left on if desired

1 teaspoon 1-2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

  • Using a spiral vegetable slicer or a vegetable peeler, cut zucchini lengthwise into long, thin strands or strips. Stop when you reach the seeds in the middle (seeds make the noodles fall apart). Place the zucchini "noodles" in a colander and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let drain for 15 to 30 minutes, then gently squeeze to remove any excess water.

  • Meanwhile, combine avocado, basil, pistachios, lemon juice, pepper and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add 1/4 cup oil and process until smooth.

  • Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add shrimp and sprinkle with Old Bay; cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp is almost cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl.

  • Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Add the drained zucchini noodles and gently toss until hot, about 3 minutes. Transfer to the bowl, add the pesto and gently toss to combine.

If you really love the texture of pasta, I'm a big fan of the Barilla Protein

Plus line. It contains legume flour (from lentils, peas, and chickpeas), increasing fiber and plant-based protein, but it tastes exactly like traditional semolina.

Buon appetito!

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