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Retrofitting Italian classics for less fat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last fall Eating Well magazine solicited favorite old-style Italian-American recipes. The magazine received more letters than there are coins in the Trevi Fountain. We selected a quintessential version of the most popular dishes to revise and ,, transform into a more healthful version.

Common to all of the classic recipes were generous amounts of ricotta, mozzarella, ground meat and sausage -- heavy doses of fat and saturated fat that called for lightening and alternative ways to enhance flavor. The good news from the test kitchen is that creamy fillings and flavorful sauces need not be lost in these make-overs of Italian-American classics. Buon appetito.

Old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs

Serves 6

1/3 cup bulgur

1/4 pound extra-lean ground beef

1/4 pound hot Italian sausage (1 link), sausage meat removed from casing

1 onion, very finely chopped

2 large egg whites, lightly beaten with a fork

3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup fresh bread crumbs, preferably whole-wheat

4 cups tomato sauce for pasta (see below)

1/2 cup slivered fresh basil leaves

1 pound spaghetti

1/2 cup freshly grated Romano cheese (1 ounce)

In a small bowl, combine bulgur and 1/2 cup hot water. Let stand until the bulgur has soaked up the liquid and has softened, about 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a rack or coat it with nonstick cooking spray, and place it over a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine ground beef, sausage, onions, egg whites, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper and bread crumbs and the soaked bulgur. Mix well with your hands or a wooden spoon. Form the mixture into 24 meatballs, each about 1 inch in diameter. Place the meatballs on the rack and bake for 15 minutes. Blot the meatballs well with paper towels.

In a Dutch oven, bring tomato sauce to a simmer. Add the meatballs and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Stir in basil. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Meanwhile, cook spaghetti in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a serving bowl. Top with sauce and meatballs and serve with Romano cheese.

595 calories per serving; 27 grams protein; 14 grams fat; 93 grams carbohydrate; 531 milligrams sodium; 35 milligrams cholesterol

Tomato sauce for pasta

Makes about 5 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

7 pounds vine-ripened tomatoes, cut in chunks, or four 28-ounce cans plum (Italian-style) tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 teaspoons dried oregano

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large heavy pan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 30 to 60 seconds. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and oregano; bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, over low heat, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes cook down to a thick mass, about 45 minutes.

Puree the tomatoes by working them through the medium disc of a food mill or through a coarse sieve into a large saucepan. (Do not use a food processor or blender for this; it grinds up the tomato seeds and makes the sauce bitter.) If the sauce seems too thin, return it to medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until it is the desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.

Test kitchen tip: When making a tomato sauce with meat, first consider whether the meat is really necessary. By omitting 1 pound of lean ground beef from a pasta sauce, you eliminate 94 grams of fat. You can compensate with mushrooms or chunks of roasted eggplant, either of which will contribute rich flavor and a "meatier" texture to sauces.

To reduce the quantity of meat, try adding a portion of soaked bulgur to meatballs or meat sauces. Cooked in a sauce or a meatball, bulgur has a texture similar to that of ground beef. And the bulgur increases the complex carbohydrate and fiber

content.

90 calories per 1/2 cup; 3 grams protein; 3 grams fat; 18 grams carbohydrate; 32 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams

Lasagna verde al forno

Serves 6

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

3/4 pound mushrooms, chopped (4 cups)

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 28-ounce can plum (Italian-style) tomatoes, chopped, with juices

2 sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil), very finely chopped (2 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup all-purpose white flour

3 cups low-fat milk

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 pound fresh spinach lasagna noodles

8 cups spinach leaves, washed and dried

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (2 ounces)

zTC Heat 1/2 tablespoon of the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring, until the onions have softened, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and garlic, and continue to cook until the mushrooms release their liquid, 2 to 3 minutes. Add wine and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes.

Stir in chopped tomatoes and their liquid, sun-dried tomatoes and thyme; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the sauce has thickened, about 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the flour starts to turn a light nutty brown, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and gradually whisk in milk. Return the pan to medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce bubbles and thickens. Season with nutmeg and salt to taste. Remove from heat and set aside, covered.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil an 8-by-11 1/2 -inch baking dish or coat it with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place a large bowl of cold water near the stove and lay some kitchen towels near the work surface. Cook lasagne in boiling water, a few sheets at a time, until barely tender, 1 to 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the noodles to the bowl of cold water, then spread them on towels.

To assemble the lasagna, spread 1/2 cup of the mushroom sauce in the bottom of the prepared pan, arrange a layer of cooked noodles over the sauce and spread with another 1/2 cup of the mushroom sauce. Arrange a single layer of the spinach leaves over the sauce and drizzle them with 1/3 cup of the bechamel sauce. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese over the spinach and top with another layer of noodles. Repeat this layering five more times. Spread the remaining bechamel sauce over the top layer of noodles, covering completely.

Cover the lasagna loosely with aluminum foil and bake in the upper part of the oven for 30 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese, and bake until the top is golden, about 20 minutes longer. Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

480 calories per serving; 25 grams protein; 11 grams fat; 68 grams carbohydrate; 553 milligrams sodium; 80 milligrams cholesterol

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