Cheesy Pasta with Spinach and Tomato

When it’s chilly and gray outside, what better way to warm up than with an eye-popping, warm-you-to-your-core pasta dish. This week’s recipe combines whole-wheat pasta with Parmesan cheese, spinach and cherry tomatoes. It’s comforting and easy to prepare.

Selecting whole-wheat pasta is important. After all, in its natural unrefined state, wheat is a powerhouse of nutrients. Thought to have originated in Asia, it has been consumed as food for more than 12,000 years. Wheat is generally considered the most important crop in the world. Not native to the Western Hemisphere, it was introduced in the late 15th century when Columbus sailed to the New World.

This nutrient-rich dish is further fortified with spinach – a vegetable that’s currently enjoying a resurgence. In a Bon Appétit magazine poll in 2005, 56 percent of those who responded reported that spinach was their favorite vegetable. Of course, the leafy green vegetable first earned America’s devotion in 1929, with the introduction of Popeye the Sailor Man. Popeye’s creator was a vegetarian who wanted to make sure everyone knew the benefits of eating their veggies.

There are actually four types of spinach. These include savory (the type we commonly buy fresh), semi-savory (which features a somewhat curly leaf), smooth leaf and baby (a smaller and more tender variety). All are generally available in most food markets and, regardless of the type, pack a nutritional punch. Spinach is particularly rich in folate, potassium and vitamins A, C and K.

A few spoonfuls of grated cheese add bold flavor without overwhelming the fat or calorie content. Add just a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts to surprise the palette with an unexpected crunch and earthy flavor.

Cheesy Pasta with Spinach and Tomato - Makes 6 servings.

2 Tbsp. pine nuts
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup red onion, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 cups cherry tomatoes
2 cups loosely packed fresh baby spinach
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 cups cooked whole-wheat macaroni
2 Tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. freshly grated Romano cheese
Pinch of crushed red pepper, optional
Pinch of dried basil, optional

Toast pine nuts in small pan on medium-low heat for a few minutes until they become fragrant and lightly toasted, stirring frequently. Be careful to not over toast or burn. Set aside in small bowl.

In medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat olive oil until hot and then add onions. Sauté onions until lightly caramelized, then add garlic. Add tomatoes, toss with onions and garlic in pan to coat. When tomatoes begin to soften and burst, add spinach, and sauté until spinach is wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

While the pasta is still hot, add it to the spinach and tomato mixture. Add cheeses. Remove from heat and let dish sit for several minutes. Top with toasted pine nuts and season with red pepper flakes and basil, if using.

Per serving: 210 calories, 9 g total fat (1.5 g saturated fat), 29 g carbohydrate, 8 g protein, 4 g dietary fiber, 150 mg sodium.

The Author:

AICR’s Nutrition Hotline is a free service that allows you to ask a registered dietitian questions about diet, nutrition and cancer. Access it on-line at www.aicr.org/hotline or by phone (1-800-843-8114) 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday-Friday. AICR is the only major cancer charity focused exclusively on the link between diet, nutrition and cancer. It provides education programs that help Americans learn to make changes for lower cancer risk. AICR also supports innovative research in cancer prevention and treatment at universities, hospitals and research centers. It has provided more than $78 million for research in diet, nutrition and cancer. AICR’s Web address is www.aicr.org.

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