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Low-Carb Italian

Throw a fest for six to eight guests

Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page M08

When you grow up in an Italian family, it's hard to escape pasta. Its chewy morsels are the backdrop to countless recipes, served with everything from chickpeas to chopped meat. In my household, we ate "macaroni" -- as we called it -- three nights a week. Fridays were always spaghetti with some type of seafood sauce. (No self-respecting Italian ate meat on Friday.) Sundays were usually rigatoni or penne topped with my mother's homemade meat sauce, which she'd simmer all day long on the stove. And Wednesdays were pasta fagioli (pasta vah-zool), a dish dating back to my great-grandmother that mixes elbow noodles, cannellini beans and pepperoni.

I happily loaded my plate night after night until a few years ago, when I started learning about pasta's downside. Traditionally, it's made with starchy, carbohydrate-heavy white flour that spikes your insulin when digested, making it difficult for the body to lose fat (because wheat pastas are made with whole grains, they have more fiber and don't spike your blood sugar as quickly). As my diet shifted to include more whole grains and leafy vegetables, I shunned my former childhood staples. When I went home to visit my family, I opted for lean meat and salad while they lapped up my father's lasagna.



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Then, a few months ago, I discovered the food of my dreams: low-carb pasta. I tested every product on the market before settling on Dreamfields ($2.59; at your local grocery or online at www.dreamfieldsfoods.com): linguinis, pennes and other shapes that actually taste like the original instead of soggy cardboard. According to a nutritionist friend, the company can claim low-carb status because it uses a special blend of fibers that allow the pasta to be digested in your colon instead of the small intestine, preventing its carbs from becoming fat-building sugars. So while you're ingesting 42 grams per half-cup of pasta (about the same as regular noodles), you're only digesting five. They also say the pasta won't wreak havoc on your blood sugar the way white-flour starches do.

I'm so in love with my new find that I've started preparing all of my family's favorite recipes once again. A few weeks ago, I invited some friends to sample my great-grandmother's pasta fagioli. A little pepperoni and onion gives it a kick and the juice from the cannellini beans creates a perfect thickness for the sauce. A spinach frittata and a nice mixed green salad made for yummy and equally-healthy sides. So next time your carb-loving crew balks at your restrictive eating habits, invite them over for a hearty pasta meal. You don't have to tell them it's low-carb. They won't be able to taste the difference. Michelle Hainer

Pasta Fagioli

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 medium onion, chopped

10 thin slices pepperoni (depending on size, you can slice in half again)

8-ounce can tomato sauce

15.5-ounce can cannellini beans (undrained)

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)

16 ounces low-carb elbow pasta (such as Dreamfields)

In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the olive oil with the onion and pepperoni until the onion browns, 6 to 8 minutes.


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