Once you veer away from the classic red tomato sauce, finding a healthy pasta sauce isn't easy.

The traditional selection of popular alternatives is a minefield of calories and fat. A typical Alfredo, for instance, can have as much as 30 grams of fat and 300 calories per 1/4 cup serving.

The healthy green color of a basil pesto can obscure the fact that between the oil, butter, nuts and cheese, 1/4 cup can deliver almost 400 calories and 36 grams of fat. And that's before adding the pasta and any grated cheese on top.

But this full-flavored artichoke-red pepper sauce is a healthier option. It is naturally low in fat and high in fiber. And as a bonus, it is quite simple to prepare.

Canned artichoke hearts and jarred roasted red peppers are pureed in a food processor with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and dried basil. The oil enhances flavors and helps the sauce adhere to pasta. But if you like, you can reduce the amount or eliminate it altogether to get even lower-in-fat results.

Be sure to use canned artichoke hearts that are packed in water rather than oil, which will make the sauce higher in fat. Rinsing the artichoke hearts before putting them in the food processor freshens up their flavor and helps to rinse away some of the unwanted sodium that is in the canning solution.

Similarly, avoid using roasted red peppers that are packed in oil or are marinated.

Besides making a delicious topping for pasta, the artichoke-red pepper sauce can be used as a spread on sandwiches, as a dip or even as a crostini topping with some tangy goat cheese.

The sauce is served here with whole-wheat penne, though any shape pasta will do.

Whole-wheat pastas lend a delicious nutty flavor to dishes while adding beneficial nutrients and fiber. They are especially suited to assertive sauces such as this.

The flavor and texture of whole-wheat pastas have improved quite a bit in recent years, so if you didn't care for them in the past, you may want to give them another try.


Start to finish: 25 minutes (15 minutes active)

Servings: 6

Two 14-ounce cans quartered artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained

12-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/8 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound whole-wheat penne or other small pasta shape

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions, then drain and return to the pot.

Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine the artichoke hearts, red peppers, olive oil, lemon juice, basil, salt and pepper. Puree until smooth. Set aside until the pasta is cooked.

Add the sauce to the pasta and toss over low heat until heated through. Serve immediately, topped with Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Nutrition information per serving: 416 calories; 63 calories from fat; 7 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 74 g carbohydrate; 15 g protein; 12 g fiber; 644 mg sodium.

Manicotti made easy

By Howie Rumberg | Associated Press

When I first started throwing dinner parties on next-to-nothing budgets and with kitchen skills to match, spaghetti with tomato sauce was my go-to main course. Cheap and easy.

But if I'd had the courage to try new things, I'd have attempted a baked pasta - lasagna, manicotti or stuffed shells. Despite my past trepidation, I've learned these are easy to make, and look impressive on the plate.

Manicotti is my favorite, mainly because the large, long pasta tubes stuffed with a ricotta cheese-based filling are delicious and easy to eat. They also lend themselves to variations, such as meat- or vegetable-based fillings.

Manicotti can be purchased in the dry pasta aisle of the grocer, but it's not my preferred approach. Too often you get a box of broken pasta pieces. Also, filling the tubes can be a pain.

A better option is to buy fresh lasagna sheets that can be cut to size, then rolled around the filling to form tubes.

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To do this, cut the pasta sheets into 4 1/2- or 5-inch squares, depending on noodle size. Add the squares to boiling water and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.

To make the manicotti, spread about 1/4 cup of filling along one edge of each pasta square. Roll the pasta tightly around the filling, then place each seam down in the pan and cover with marinara.

Since not everyone will be able to find fresh lasagna noodles, this recipe is written for dry manicotti tubes, which are widely available. If you are lucky enough to find (or are industrious enough to make) fresh lasagna, use the above method. You will need about 1 pound of fresh lasagna noodles.

The best way to get around the challenges of filling dry manicotti is to place the cheese mixture in a plastic bag, snip off one corner and inject, or pipe, it into the pasta.

Once the manicotti are filled, it's time to apply the cheese. And there's nothing worse than dense cheese globs on top of your pasta.

Use a light touch when sprinkling the cheese. Spread the cheese by moving your hand over the top of the dish as you sprinkle, creating an even layer. The goal is to have a fluffy cheese topping so air can circulate through the cheese when you uncover the dish for the final minutes. This will give you a golden gratin on top instead of a burnt layer.

One of the real bonuses of baked pasta is that it reheats well. When you're ready to go for seconds, just add a light layer of sauce and cover.


Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes (40 minutes active)

Servings: 6

12 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, divided

10 ounces chopped frozen spinach, thawed

2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese

2 egg yolks

1 cup grated pecorino cheese

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

8-ounce box manicotti pasta tubes (about 14 tubes)

1/2 tablespoon butter

4 cups marinara

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.

Meanwhile, dice about a quarter of the mozzarella into small cubes, enough to produce about a cup. Place the diced cheese in a large bowl. Set aside. Cut the remaining mozzarella into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Set aside.

Place the thawed spinach at the center of a kitchen towel, then wrap the towel around it and squeeze it tightly over the sink to remove excess water. Continue squeezing until no more water runs out.

Unwrap the spinach and coarsely chop. Add to the bowl of cheese, then add the ricotta cheese, egg yolks, 1/2 cup each of the pecorino and Parmesan cheeses, parsley, and salt and pepper. Mix well and set aside.

Carefully add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package directions, or until cooked but still firm. Drain and arrange the cooked manicotti on a moist kitchen towel to prevent sticking.

Use the butter to lightly coat the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch or larger baking dish. Spread 1 cup of the marinara over the bottom.

Transfer the cheese and spinach mixture to a large zip-close plastic bag, and shut. Use scissors to snip off one corner of the bag, creating a hole about 1/2 inch around.

One at a time, hold each manicotti in one hand. Place the open corner of the plastic bag into one end of the manicotti and gently squeeze to fill the tube with cheese. Rotate the manicotti and fill the other side.

Arrange the filled manicotti in the prepared pan. They should be close, but not touching.

Spread the remaining sauce over the manicotti. Arrange the slice mozzarella over the manicotti, then sprinkle with the remaining grated pecorino and Parmesan cheeses.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and cheese looks completely melted. Remove the foil and continue baking an additional 5 to 7 minutes to get a deep golden color.

Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Nutrition information per serving: 789 calories; 362 calories from fat; 40 g fat (20 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 335 mg cholesterol; 56 g carbohydrate; 54 g protein; 3 g fiber; 2,199 mg sodium.

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