Penne al Forno

My family and I are switching to a vegetarian, whole foods diet for health and weight-loss purposes. I’m pretty excited about it, and it’s amazing to me how much food I eat during a sitting because it’s low density calories and high fiber. All of it is very low fat, very low cholesterol and packed with nutrients. It’s so nice because when I eat I feel satiated without feeling weighed down and bloated.

I think the last time I ate meat was a week ago Friday, a turkey sandwich in my lunch, but this is my first official attempt at making a vegetarian meal since we started this dietary change.

Start your pasta water immediately, and preheat your oven to 350. Use a big pot for 16 oz of pasta. The recipe calls for brown rice pasta, but I used a whole grain pasta.

For the sauce you’ll need to dice a half of a yellow onion (you’ll use the other half for the main part of the recipe), 2 cloves of garlic minced, 4 Roma tomatoes chopped, water, salt, pepper, and either thyme, oregano, or rosemary, or all three if you want to get crazy.

Saute your onion over medium heat until they turn a nice brown color. I find this is the best way for me to incorporate onions into a recipe without getting heartburn and stomach cramping. I think the sulfuric acid and insoluble fiber cooks down into a more gentler form for my tummy. Really let ’em cook down – same with celery and garlic if you have similar GI problems.

Add your garlic and saute a couple minutes more.

Add the tomatoes, 1/4 C of water, S&P, and any herbs you want to throw in. Stir and crush the tomatoes every half minute or so to break them down. Check out the recipe below; there are other means for doctoring up this sauce. I preferred to stick to the basics it being a new recipe and all.

So that’s it for the sauce; we’ll get back to it in a bit. In the meantime, we can make the rest of the dish.

 Basic Tomato Sauce recipe by Jason Wyrick

1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium tomatoes (preferably large Romas), chopped
1/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or oregano or 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

Over medium heat, sauté the onion until it turns a rich brown color. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 more minute. Add the tomatoes and then the water and stir. Add the salt, pepper, and thyme/oregano/rosemary. Simmer the tomatoes until they turn into a sauce (only 3 or 4 minutes for a very fresh tomato sauce, and about 7 to 10 minutes for a smooth, heavily cooked sauce). Press on the tomatoes every 30 seconds or so as they cook to help them release their juices. Add extra water as needed to achieve the desired consistency.

Options: 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin; 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or cilantro
Options: If you use cumin, add it along with the salt and pepper. If you are using fresh basil, stir it into the sauce immediately after it comes off the heat. Only cook the sauce for 3 to 4 minutes and as soon as it comes off the heat, stir in the fresh cilantro.
Making It Simple: Instead of chopping and cooking down the tomatoes, stir in 12 ounces of crushed fire-roasted tomatoes and simmer the sauce until it’s warm.

The Main Dish

It’s best to have everything prepped before beginning so that it’s just a matter of chucking things into the pan. First, saute your carrots, celery, zucchini, and onion. In my case, I really wanted to make sure the onion was cooked well so I put that in first and then added the other vegetables later.

While the veg is sauteing you can go ahead and get your other ingredients going. I used a 2 1/2 quart casserole and found thta I had just enough room for everything. This here is roasted red peppers, Roma tomatoes, black olives (cheaper than Kalamata), 1 14.5 oz can of cannellini beans drained and rinsed, and of course the basil.

When the veg is done sauteing, add it to the casserole and incorporate.

Add the cooked pasta – I saved a mug full of pasta water before draining and poured some of it over the casserole while trying to mix in the pasta. I think it helped loosen things up and prevented the casserole from drying out in the oven.  Top your casserole with your tomato sauce.

Cover your casserole and baked it for about 15 minutes or so.

I dressed this with a little salt and pepper, and it turned out to be a wonderful variety of textures and flavors. My wife and I found it still lacked in something – it needed a zing or something to sort of set it off. Truthfully, we wanted to smother it with Parmesan cheese, but in sticking with the vegan approach we refrained.

I must say that in this short time that I haven’t eaten meat (or any animal products except for a small sample of goat cheese at my job at The Fresh Market) I have come to admire vegetarians and vegans for their perspective on food and the challenges they face.

It’s easy to throw together a turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch and be on your way. It’s also very easy to jot hamburgers, hot dogs, pork chops, and steak when making out your weekly grocery list. Or contrarily, when the list is so simple it’s easy to scrap the list altogether because those meats are so readily available at every commercial city block where I live. It’s different when those conveniences don’t apply to you, and the pb&j solution isn’t sustainable.

But while making the transition from carnivore is challenging, it’s also exciting because there is a whole world of new foods out there to explore. I’m not talking about fake burgers and bacon either; I’m talking about cooking. In the a few cookbooks I’ve discovered so many recipes that have new substitutions and cooking methods that deliver foods that are new, delicious, satisfying, and have a positive impact on your health (as in better than just not having a negative impact). I’m excited to share my discoveries – this is going to be cool!

 Penne al Forno recipe by Jason Wyrick

8–10 fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
2 carrots, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
2 zucchini, sliced
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
16 ounces brown rice penne pasta
2 roasted red peppers, chopped
3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
6–8 green olives stuffed with garlic, sliced, or ¼ cup pitted whole kalamata olives
2 cups Basic Tomato Sauce

Options: 2 cups rinsed cooked cannellini beans

Roll the basil leaves tightly and slice them into ribbons. Over medium heat, sauté the carrots, celery, zucchini, and onion for about 3 to 5 minutes (this will ensure they are soft enough by the time they are done baking and will help all the flavors meld). Bring the water to a boil. Add the brown rice pasta and stir. Cook the pasta until it is slightly underdone (it will finish cooking in the oven). Immediately mix all the ingredients together in deep baking dish. Cover the dish. Bake the pasta at 350 degrees F for 10 to 12 minutes. If you want to add the beans, stir them into the pasta just after it comes out of the oven.

Making It Simple: Slice all the veggies and forgo sautéing them. Just throw it all in a baking dish and bake it for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Tip: Cook the pasta after you are done preparing the veggies so that it does not sit for a long time.