When I met my husband Dan, he had three go-to dishes in his dinner rotation: stir-fry, rice and beans and pasta with sauce. With an emphasis on the latter. My husband’s zest for red-sauced Italian cuisine eventually won me over. But somewhere along the line, plain pasta with jarred sauce, no matter how fine, started offending my culinary sensibilities.

Fortunately, we reached a compromise around the time our 3 1/2-year-old son, Theo, was born. Now on pasta night, we toss whatever farmers market greens we have on hand into the salty, bubbling cooking water minutes before we drain the pasta.

It can be kale, Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, endive, beet or turnip greens, broccoli florets, even chopped broccoli stems and collard stalks, no matter how wilted or neglected.

We top this melange with a superior jarred sauce, from Micucci’s in Portland or The Silver Palate’s surprisingly good grocery store line, or perhaps my frozen garden-fresh basil pesto, and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Maine goat cheese or feta. Now I welcome pasta at least once a week.

Our workaday “kitchen sink” pasta “just tastes better, too,” says my economist husband, who now prefers this method to his former red-sauce love. Our joint technique marries the efficiency of pasta with the flavor and health benefits of fresh vegetables, and it’s cooked efficiently without dirtying a single extra pot. This approach makes quotidian pasta more special.

Like father like son: picky Theo loves pasta, too, even if he mostly picks out the greens. Does adding them to the cooking water infuse the pasta with some of their nutrients?

Theo also mostly shuns the pastured, local ground meat – beef, lamb, pork or veal – or Italian sausage that we often sauté with garlic, onion, spices and slow-roasted tomatoes (canned or defrosted) for an instant ragù. We toss his noodles in that meaty goodness, so they soak it up before he demands that we spoon out the meat clumps.

Beans (canned or soaked and stewed at home) are another easy addition that can punch up your pasta. Pasta with chickpeas (pasta e ceci) is a personal favorite, and frozen green peas add something bright and sweet, especially in creamy, egg-and-bacon pasta carbonara.

Nor can you go wrong with canned fish – Omega-rich sardines, olive oil-packed quality tuna or standby anchovies melted into sautéing garlic for a cured black olive-and-caper-studded tangy puttanesca sauce.

In this new year, I’m stepping up my game to sneak more veggies into our pasta. Remember Jessica Seinfeld’s “Deceptively Delicious” call for slipping butternut squash or cauliflower puree into macaroni and cheese? (Also think butternut squash risotto.)

Brunswick-trained chef Ali Waks-Adams, who blogs at ourmainecourse.com, recommends replacing half the cheese sauce in your favorite mac-and-cheese recipe with puréed butternut squash enhanced with rosemary, sage and Sriracha hot sauce (recipe below).

She makes an alternative version with lower-carb roasted cauliflower florets standing in for half the pasta. I also want to try replacing béchamel sauce with whipped cauliflower for a lighter, and potentially vegan, version of lasagna.

Waks-Adams encourages my family’s New Year’s resolution to cook from scratch more often in her new, self-published e-book, “Dinner, Every Night.” That butternut mac-and-cheese recipe, for example, is mindful of every current dietary constraint. It calls for whole-wheat pasta or gluten-free elbows, goat cheese and whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs or a gluten-free substitution. She offers vegan substitutions, too.

We aren’t gluten-free, and thankfully Dan just tested negative for celiac after I urged him to find out, since the disease runs in his family. But we’ve still dabbled in gluten-free pastas – quinoa, corn and brown rice ones – in part to vary the grains Theo gets from this staple dish.

Note to self: Make more soft, squishy, addictive potato gnocchi (prepared or maybe I’ll rice potatoes for homemade again one of these days). I also want to try the Cheesy Skillet Gnocchi a recipe-developer friend created for Cooking Light magazine, sautéing packaged gnocchi in olive oil instead of boiling them.

Who knew affordable Ronzoni’s “delicious white pasta taste” gluten-free line, made of a blend of white and brown rice, corn and quinoa flours, is the superior alternative? Its toothsome, non-mushy texture shocked me – pleasantly – at a community supper fundraiser for the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The tomato and meat sauces cooked by volunteers with the Brunswick Democratic Town Committee were brightened with a fresh parsley-Parmesan topping made by Jackie Sartoris (which was delicious, whatever your politics).

Even boxed mac-and-cheese can be enhanced with fresh or frozen veggies added to the pasta water, L.L. Bean copywriter Kate Boak of the “working mom’s meal plan” blog (supper bysix.blogspot.com), reminded me.

Boak’s recipe archive is filled with suggestions for how to get home-cooked dinners on the table during the busy work week. She always doubles make-ahead recipes cooked on the weekend, casseroles that she stuffs into her family’s extra freezer.

We like her easy, five-ingredient Baked Sausage with Penne, where the unboiled pasta cooks in the oven in the casserole’s sauce (similar to no-bake lasagna noodles). And her mother-in-law’s Spicy Szechwan Noodles with thin spaghetti and our good grass-fed ground beef from Crystal Spring Farm, is an antidote to the lack of good Chinese takeout in these parts. But with kids, mac-and-cheese is always a good place to start.


This recipe, adapted from Waks-Adams’ new “Dinner, Every Night” (an Amazon e-book), was a hit when she prepared it for a crowd of 150 at the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s soup kitchen in Brunswick. You can add even more vegetables by tossing greens in the pasta cooking water.

My favorite whole wheat pasta is Jovial Foods’ nutty einkorn penne, while Italian De Cecco is our go-to daily pasta. I worry less about white-flour pasta since reading Peter Kaminsky’s “Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (and Really Well)”; in it he wrote that white pasta has a glycemic index similar to whole-grain versions when it is cooked al dente.

Serves 8 to 10

2 pounds butternut (or other winter) squash or pumpkin

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 pound box whole-grain or gluten-free pasta elbows

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup half-and-half

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or sage

1/2 cups shredded cheese (Jack, Cheddar, Fontina, Parmesan – anything but mozzarella)

1 cup creamy goat cheese or cream cheese

2 tablespoons Sriracha or other hot sauce, more or less to taste

3/4 cup whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs (or substitute a mixture of crushed gluten-free crackers and toasted, chopped almonds)

3 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Peel the squash and cut into 11/2-inch chunks. Toss with oil, season with salt and pepper and roast until soft, about 50 minutes.

Puree in a food processor or blender; you will need 21/2 cups squash puree for this recipe. Set the puree aside and leave the oven on.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta to al dente, following the package instructions. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain pasta.

In a large pot on the stovetop, heat the milk, half-and-half, rosemary and a good 1/2 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper to just below a simmer. Whisk all but 1/2 cup of the shredded cheeses and all the goat cheese into the simmering milk mixture. Continue to whisk until the cheese is melted.

Add the drained pasta and the reserved pasta water to the milk mixture. Stir until the pasta and sauce are well-combined. Add the pureed squash and the hot sauce, and mix together well. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed.

Scrap the macaroni into an oven-proof casserole or baking dish. Combine the remaining 1/2 cup shredded cheese with the bread crumbs and butter. Sprinkle the crumb mixture evenly over the casserole. Bake for 30 minutes until the crumbs are golden brown and the macaroni mixture is bubbling.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter @baltimoregon and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.

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