Chef’s best: Basta pasta! Try beans instead

  • Cannellini Beans with Grilled Vegetables, Baby Arugula and Lemon.  Photo by Steven Kantrowitz

  • Photo by Steven Kantrowitz

Friday, September 01, 2017

What makes a pasta dish “classic”?

The shape of the noodle? The ingredients in the sauce? Ease of preparation? A difficult-to-pronounce name? Personally, I’m a big fan of farfalle. Bucatini, meh. Smaller individual shapes tend to take less effort to eat, while the longer noodles should be avoided at all costs during first dates or meals with your boss.

I have always found that a bowl of pasta is one of the most satisfying meals that can be served. Pasta is an inexpensive and efficient vehicle for almost any collection of ingredients, with endless possibilities, from simply garnishing a bowl of strongly flavored broth to starring in complex dishes with layers of flavors, steps of preparation and assembly.

When I adjusted my diet away from processed foods and towards plant-based whole foods, I found it difficult to be in the mindset of not allowing myself pasta. So instead of focusing on what I shouldn’t eat, I celebrated all of the foods that I can. Rather than looking for “not pasta” or pasta substitutes with poor texture and lackluster flavor, I simply took my favorite dishes and began replacing the type of noodle with either a grain or legume. Those additions added a dimension of complex carbohydrates and plant-based proteins that created a well-balanced, nutrient-dense meal.

I use grains, greens, veggies and beans as the foundation of all of my meals, and my rule of thumb is that the grains and beans should be no more than one-third of the dish. The rest is made up by veggies and greens. So if I use a cup of cooked grains or a can of drained red kidney beans, I visualize using twice as much of the remaining ingredients.

When choosing what to add to any dish, I always think about flavor, color and texture. Cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes and big beefsteaks are all perfectly acceptable. Grilled Bermuda onions instead of Vidalia? Better color, in my opinion. Substitute arugula for spinach for more of a peppery, woody flavor.

Serving size is just a suggestion. When my three college-age kids were recently home together for dinner, serving size was defined as “as fast as I can cook.”

Cannellini Beans with Grilled Vegetables, Baby Arugula
and Lemon 

1 medium zucchini, cut into ¼ inch rounds.

1 medium red onion, cut crosswise into ¼ inch slices.

1 plum tomato, cut into quarters, lengthwise. Then cut each quarter into thirds, crosswise (yield 12 pieces). Substitute 12 cherry or pear tomatoes. Use yellow, gold and red, if available.

1 can (15-oz.) cannellini beans, drained well. Reserve ¼ cup of liquid.

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped basil

A pinch of red-pepper flakes

Juice of 1 lemon

2 cups loosely packed arugula 

Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Using a preheated, oiled grill pan or outdoor grill, place zucchini and red onion on surface and grill 5-6 minutes to obtain even grill marks. Flip vegetables, and grill for another 5-6 minutes. Remove vegetables and set aside.

Place a 10-12 inch sauté pan over low-to-medium heat; add beans and reserved liquid.

When beans are heated, add grilled vegetables, tomatoes, parsley, basil, pepper flakes and lemon juice. Gently stir to combine.

Remove pan from heat, and add arugula. Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper.

Garnish with grilled bread. I recommend the 8-grain from Hungry Ghost Bread.