Jim Coleman | Whole-wheat pasta, flavorful and healthy

Posted: August 02, 2007

Q: I have been told for health reasons to move away from plain flour and eat things made of whole wheat. I'd like to know more about whole-wheat pasta. Do you cook it any differently than regular pasta? Are some whole-wheat pastas better than others? I would really appreciate it if you could send me some easy recipes using whole-wheat pasta. Thanks.

- Trudy W.

A: Trudy, we must hang out with the same crowd, since I have also been steered down the whole-wheat path for health reasons.

The good news is that whole-wheat pasta works really well in a lot of recipes, and in many cases I like it even better than regular pasta. Whole-wheat pasta, like all whole-wheat products, is not as processed as the kind made with white flour. Because of that it contains much more of the natural nutrition found in the grain.

Also, the harder the grain, the further it travels down our little tummies (OK, in my case it's a big tummy), and the carbs don't have as much time to turn into sugar. All of this is on the plus side of the health ledger.

You've probably heard some people say they don't like whole-wheat pasta because it has a strong flavor. True, but these are probably the same people who tell you they don't like salmon because it has a fishy flavor. Guess what, sports fans: It's fish. And with whole-wheat pasta, you get the more intense flavor of - wheat. Since whole-wheat pasta has a stronger flavor, you know what we're going to do? (Drum roll, please.) We're going to use it with more robustly flavored sauces. I know, it's a stroke of genius.

As to your other questions, I don't have a favorite brand of whole-wheat pasta among the many brands on the market these days.

I hope you will try a lot of different ones and let me know which you like best. And I'm not trying to be funny when I tell you the best way to cook whole-wheat pasta is according to package directions. Sometimes the simple answer really is the right one. Just make sure you use a large enough pot with lots of water. On the whole (no pun intended), whole-wheat pasta takes a little longer to cook.

By the way, for recipes that require a milder sauce treatment, I have found a traditional "durum semolina" pasta (not whole-wheat) that not only tastes good, it has a 65 percent lower glycemic index than regular pasta and only 5 grams of digestible carbs per serving (all of which I have to watch in my diet).

It's sold under the brand name Dreamfields, and I think most stores carry it. I am sharing a couple of recipes that will work for whole-wheat or regular pasta that you could serve to any crowd. I'll bet the people who told you they don't like whole-wheat pasta will ask for seconds. *

WHOLE-WHEAT LINGUINI WITH WALNUT SPINACH PESTO, TOMATOES & RED ONIONS

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, sliced lengthwise

1 small red onion, cut in half, thinly sliced

2 medium tomatoes, diced

8 ounces whole-wheat linguini

¾ cup spinach pesto (recipe to follow)

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat and saute the garlic and red onion for 2 minutes. Add tomato and cook for one more minute.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain it, reserving a half-cup of the water, then toss pasta with the tomato mixture.

Divide the pesto among 4 warm pasta bowls or deep plates. Add the pasta and 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water to each bowl.

Toss to combine, adding more of the water if needed to coat the pasta with the sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serves 4.

SPINACH PESTO

½ cup walnuts

2 cups coarsely chopped, flat-leaf spinach leaves

8 large basil leaves, torn in pieces

1 medium clove garlic, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon soft tofu

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a food processor, whirl the nuts until finely chopped, 30 seconds. Add the spinach, basil and garlic.

Whirl until they are finely chopped, 15 seconds. Add the tofu and cheese. Pulse 3 or 4 times, just to blend. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil. Season the pesto to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 4 servings for linguini recipe above.

PENNE WITH PUTTANESCA SAUCE

¼ cup olive oil

1 cup finely chopped onion

6 cloves minced garlic

2 (28-ounce) cans Roma plum tomatoes,

broken into pieces, with juice

1 cup tightly packed, pitted and halved Kalamata olives

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 tablespoons drained capers

2 tablespoons minced anchovy fillets (about 8 fillets)

½ teaspoon dried crushed basil

½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes

Salt to taste

1 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and lightly caramelized, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the remaining ingredients except the pasta and simmer until the sauce is thickened and slightly reduced, about 40 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Add cooked penne pasta to the pan and toss for 1 minute. Serves 6.

RAGU ALLA BOLOGNESE

1 slice prosciutto, ¼-inch thick, cubed

1 sprig fresh parsley

1 medium-sized onion, quartered

1 rib celery, cut into 4 pieces

1 medium-sized carrot, peeled and cut into 4 pieces

½ cup sundried tomatoes

1 cup artichoke hearts

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 pound mixed boneless beef, veal and pork,

chopped together

2 fresh sage leaves, or ¼ teaspoon dried

Salt and fresh ground pepper

¼ cup dry wine, preferably red

2 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade

3 tablespoons tomato paste

¼ cup heavy cream (optional)

In a food processor, combine the prosciutto, parsley, onion, celery, carrot, sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts.

Process until the mixture is finely chopped.

In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat. Add the prosciutto-vegetable mixture and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in the meat and sage and cook, stirring frequently, until brown. Season with salt, if used, and the pepper. Add the wine and let evaporate.

Blend the broth into the tomato paste and stir into meat. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour.

Add the cream, if used, stir and remove from heat.

This recipe dresses one pound of pasta.

Chef Jim Coleman, corporate chef at Normandy Farm and Blue Bell Country Club, is the author of three cookbooks and is the host of two nationally syndicated cooking shows - "A Chef's Table" on WHYY (91-FM) at noon Saturdays and "Flavors of America," on Channel 12 at 1 p.m. Saturdays and CN8 Monday through Friday, 4:30 p.m.

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