When it comes to pasta, there are two kinds of people – those whose general notion of pasta is that it’s unhealthy and should be eaten rarely, and those who just don’t know (or care) how healthy or unhealthy it is and eat it with abandon whenever they please. I came up with this recipe to answer that never ending question – how can you make a truly healthy, nourishing pasta? This healthy pasta recipe for roasted red pepper pesto with whole wheat pasta is perfect for both kinds of people – it’s richer in fibre with the use of whole wheat pasta and the protein content is upped with the addition of tofu, while still deliciously creamy, filling and comforting. Yes, you can have your pasta and eat it too.
When I was at U of Michigan, my comfort food was the penne rosa pasta at Noodles & Co (I still have cravings for it every now and then). It can’t be the most balanced meal and isn’t exactly a healthy pasta dish but it isn’t all that bad either. They have the option of adding in tofu for vegetarians – it was the first time I had tofu in a pasta. Tofu in a pasta might seem odd to you at first but once you try it there’s no turning back. It doesn’t have to be reserved just for Asian food! While their tofu is probably shallow-fried or really well roasted, in this recipe I sauté it for a few minutes with the red pepper pesto to incorporate the flavors but keep it light.
I’ve always loved the deep smoky sweet flavor of roasted red pepper pesto. You really don’t need to add a lot of oil or cheese because the flavor stands out as it is. The most important ingredient in this pasta is basil. Fresh leaves add so much flavor – don’t leave them out. If you’re not into red pepper pesto or want to create a healthier version of a different traditional pasta sauce, I’m sharing my top tips for a healthy but flavorful pasta.
How to Make a Healthy Pasta
- Add protein with tofu, nuts and seeds
For vegetarians, tofu is a great way to add in protein without altering the flavor of the pasta too much. If you don’t like tofu, nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, etc. are also good sources of protein that will make your pasta more filling. They also add richness without the guilt. I frequently rotate the nuts I use in my pesto base depending on what I have handy and what flavors I think will go together. Hemp seeds are also rich in protein but much less commonly available in India.
- Use Whole Wheat
One more way to up your pasta’s nutrients? Use whole wheat pasta – it actually adds a nice flavor when you learn to complement it in the right way. Of course there are naysayers but on average whole wheat pasta packs 4x more fiber and more protein (depends on the kind you use) than regular white pasta.
- Skip the cream: add flavor with herbs
Of course, pasta just goes with cheese – and I’m not saying to skimp out. Let the flavors of the herbs and spices take center stage and use less cheese than you normally would. Basil, oregano, sage, parsley, lemon zest, black pepper, crushed red pepper, the list goes on! They all add an intense aromatic flavor that negates the need for overbearing cream and cheese at all. For me, the real pleasure in cooking comes from focusing on subtle and simple flavors.
- The Wonder Ingredient: Milk
If you really can’t forego that creamy pasta sauce, you’ll be glad to know that a little milk will get you at least halfway there. I frequently add half a cup of skimmed milk to my pasta sauces (it also helps to prevent oxidation of the basil in pesto). You can also use unsweetened plain nut milk if you are vegan. When adding milk, just be sure to continue stirring and that you aren’t cooking on extremely high heat to avoid tearing.
- 150g whole wheat fusilli or penne pasta
- 200g mushrooms, sliced (200g before cleaning and de-stemming)
- 200g tofu, cut into pieces about ¾ inch long
- 70g feta (optional)
- ¼ cup or 60ml milk of choice
- 15-20 basil leaves
- 3 red peppers, cut in half and de-seeded
- 10-12 cloves of garlic
- 1 tbsp olive oil plus more for brushing
- 25-30 almonds
- ½ tsp red chili pepper
- ½ tsp paprika
- ½ tsp salt or to taste
- Preheat your oven to 250C. Brush the peppers with olive oil on the skin side and roast for 15-20 minutes or until you can peel the skin off easily.
- While the peppers are roasting, boil the pasta as per the instructions on the box.
- Peel the skin off the peppers and blend in a mixer with the remaining ingredients for the pesto.
- In a large pan, sauté the mushrooms for 3-4 minutes on high heat. Add in the tofu and two-three tablespoons of the pesto. Sauté for a few minutes.
- Add in the pasta, remaining pesto, ¼ cup of milk and feta if you are using it. Tear the basil leaves and add them into the pasta.
- Continue to sauté until well incorporated, about two-three more minutes. Serve immediately.
How do you make your pasta healthier?
Let me know what you think of this recipe, feel free to share your tips and tricks in the comments below!