I’m here to come to the defense of pasta.
We’ve been conditioned to think of pasta dishes as inherently unhealthy. Carbo-loaders, sure, but beyond that? Junk. An indulgence, and nothing more.
But why? I’ll concede that wheat and most grains aren’t exactly bursting with nutrients per calorie. And if you have a gluten sensitivity, then certainly, you’ve got to use an alternative grain. But these days, that’s not hard.
Pasta, the protein source?
There’s a serious misconception out there: that pasta is “carbs” and nothing else.
Yes, it’s mostly carbohydrate. No fat, in most cases. But protein? Here’s the surprise.
Most elite vegan athletes I’ve talked to say they get anywhere from 12 to 15 percent of their calories from protein. Guess where whole wheat pasta falls?
That’s right — 15 percent protein! In other words, if you ate nothing but whole wheat pasta — while you’d have a lot of problems — protein wouldn’t be an issue! (Okay, if you want to get technical, then sure, you’d be deficient in certain amino acids. But in simple terms of protein per calorie, whole wheat pasta is exactly where you want to be.)
So this food that we’ve always considered the carbo-loader is actually quite high in protein — another great example of how eating whole foods (as opposed to pasta made from white refined flour, in this case) gets you all the protein you need.
Nobody’s saying that pasta is the next superfood. But it’s a solid base on which to build great-tasting meals with loads of vegetables, and that’s why I love it.
My Love Affair with Pasta
In what feels like a past life before I became vegetarian, I was a pasta fiend. I spent Sundays (and too many weekdays) making gnocchi and fresh linguine and ravioli, all from scratch. As authentic as I possibly could.
While my priorities have shifted somewhat as I’ve gotten older, pasta is still a standby. That little island of decadence in the middle of the week that my kids will actually eat. The one meal with which I still spend time pairing with the perfect wine.
And a meal that, contrary to popular belief, can be one of your healthiest of the week — with just a little effort.
4 Ways to Make Your Pasta Healthier
- Use alternative grain pasta. Personally, I don’t mind whole wheat or have any sensitivity to gluten, but you definitely want whole wheat over white flour. And as far as the flavor goes, it’s come a long way in the past 15 years or so. Most often though, we use an organic corn/quinoa blend pasta.
- Use less oil: in most recipes, I cut the oil in half, especially if they call for a quarter cup or more. I don’t omit it entirely because, well, I like it.
- The vast majority of pasta recipes call for cheese. You can usually omit it without a problem, but a lot of times I like to compensate with either (a) a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt, (b) a dollop of cashew cream, (c) gomasio, (d) toasted walnuts ground into a course powder, plus a little lemon juice.
- If you’re worried your pasta dish isn’t substantial enough, blend some chickpeas into the sauce. This is actually called for in certain traditional recipes, and adds some nutrition.
My 7 Favorites
The recipes below are mostly linked from other sites, not my own. As you’ll see, when it comes to pasta, I’m generally not a fan of recipes from vegan cookbooks: I like to go to the source. The rustic. The authentic. And then make them vegan on my own terms — no nutritional yeast; no excessive kale “just because.”
So this is a different collection of recipes than you’ll normally find on No Meat Athlete. Vegan, sure — and with each one, I explain how to make it that way. And healthy? That too. But the kind of healthy that you’d never notice if you didn’t know better.
My absolute favorite dinner recently. If you’re not making your own pasta, then it’s quick, too! The fennel and green onions add interesting flavors not found in typical red sauce. This one is best in the summer with fresh, ripe tomatoes, but I’ve made it with canned diced tomatoes and it still works.
Make it vegan: It already is! Just omit the cheese at the end.
Potatoes and pasta may seem like an odd pairing, but this is a traditional (and delicious) Italian dish. For years this has been my ritualistic pre-race lunch or dinner (lunch is your better bet for the day-before carbo-loading meal).
Make it vegan: The recipe linked above is on No Meat Athlete, but it’s from when I was vegetarian, not yet vegan. So omit the grated cheese, and use this recipe for the pesto (or another one you like) instead:
- 2 cups (one large bunch) basil
- 1/3 cup raw almonds (walnuts or pine nuts work, too)
- 1 clove garlic
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- sea salt, to taste
- 1/3 cup good quality olive oil
Combine basil, nuts, garlic, lemon juice, and a pinch of salt in a food processor and pulse until it becomes a coarse paste. With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil and let it process until the mixture is relatively smooth. Add salt to taste.
More potatoes and pasta in the same bowl, so save this Mark Bittman recipe for a pre-long-run or pre-race meal the day before. Simple, with just a handful of ingredients, and fairly quick, too.
Make it vegan: Omit the optional pancetta or bacon.
This hearty recipe is from chef Andrew Carmellini’s great book Urban Italian (unfortunately, the book is not so vegan-adaptable). It’s a pasta dish I feel especially good about eating and serving to my kids, since it includes both chickpeas and broccoli rabe and thus isn’t a total carbo-bomb.
(By the way: the missing ingredient amounts in the linked recipe are one-quarter teaspoon ground fennel seed and one-half teaspoon crushed red pepper.)
Make it vegan: Omit the sausage (duh) and skip the “To Finish the Dish” section, which uses cheese and butter. Optionally, you can use a vegan sausage like Field Roast (Italian style), but in that case, brown the sausage in a separate pan and only toss into the sauce at the very end, otherwise it’ll disintegrate in the sauce. Trust me, I’ve done it.
A simple, weeknight sauce that’s borderline decadent. It depends entirely on the quality of tomatoes you use, but most of the time I make it with red tomatoes since it’s hard to find yellow. This is the time to pay extra for those fancy Kumato or other slightly-larger-than-cherry tomatoes.
Make it vegan: Omit the cheese at the end, and if you use the optional breadcrumbs, make sure they’re vegan. I like to make them myself or use whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs.
For multiple birthday dinners, this is the meal I’ve requested (and that my wonderful wife has made for me). We always make it with portobellos instead of porcinis, since porcinis are more expensive, hard to find, and woodsier-tasting.
I’ve had it with fresh, eggless pasta and of course it’s delicious that way, but most of the time we just buy dried fettuccine noodles. You can even used jarred sauce if you really want to speed things up.
Make it vegan: Omit the cheese, and replace the small amount of butter with either olive oil or refined coconut oil (the saturated fat content gives coconut oil a more buttery taste than olive oil, and the refined version tastes less coconutty than the virgin variety). Make sure the red wine you use is vegan.
Not usually a huge fan of eggplant, I fell in love with pasta alla norma when I ate a vegan version as part of a prix fixe menu in a restaurant beneath the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Confession: the recipe I usually make at home is from Cooks Illustrated, but their recipes online aren’t free to view.
Make it vegan: It basically already is — just omit the cheese at the end.
Join me in Italy next summer?
I’ve only been to Italy one time, but I’ll be returning this July (2015) with Tierno Tours and Green Earth Travel. I’ll be hosting a one-week tour, along with artistan vegan cheese maker Miyoko Schinner, in the Amalfi Coast region (where I’m told the diet is traditionally organic and somewhat plant-based). Miyoko and I will each give a few talks/demos, and I’m sure I’ll get out for a few runs, too.
Our week is limited to only 22 guests and filling quickly, so if you’re interested, check out the details here and get in touch with Donna at Green Earth Travel to reserve your spot.