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Italian cooking -- without the pasta

Pasta-free Italian

If you're dieting -- especially if you're on a low-carb diet -- one of the first foods you've probably given up is pasta... and one of the first cuisines you've probably shied away from is Italian. Classic Italian food, at least the way it is served in the United States, can be a minefield. But Italian food in general doesn't have to be full of carbohydrates! Here are some pasta-free ways to enjoy a taste of Italy.

Italian foods"If we get away from the erroneous thinking that Italian means pasta and pizza, then people can open up to a whole new range of possibilities that is authentic Italian," says Chef Silvia Bianco, author of Simply Sauté.

Chef Bianco was born in the Calabria region of Italy, and her style of cooking relies on the simplest of cooking methods: a good sauté pan, a creative heart and fresh ingredients. Pasta-free Italian ingredients include:

  • Cheeses -- such as asiago, Parmesan, pecorino, Gorgonzola, ricotta and mozzarella.
  • Cured meats -- such as proscuitto, pancetta, bresaola and salami; fresh meats such as lamb, pork and veal.
  • Fish -- such as anchovies, sardines and calamari.
  • Vegetables -- such as salad greens, fennel, eggplant, zucchini, and of course tomatoes -- plus some types of beans.
  • Herbs and seasonings -- including garlic, capers, olives, parsley, basil, rosemary, sage and dried chili flakes.

Making modifications

Cookbook author and low-carb guru Dana Carpender loves Italian food, and says that she wouldn't dream of giving up this cuisine. She does advise experimenting with recipes to reduce the amount of carbs, especially recipes that include foods such as tomatoes, onions and garlic.

"I've modified recipes that call for three onions or more down to one with excellent results. The same is true for recipes that use a lot of tomatoes. These ingredients are wonderful and healthy, but can be high in carbs," she says.

She also advises to read labels when buying cured meats. "You will find that there is quiet a range of carb counts among cured meats, because some manufacturers add more sugar than others do. If you're in a position where you can't read the labels, like at the deli counter, ask questions. This is especially true if you're buying something that the store has mixed up themselves, like Italian sausages or marinated meats."

Try different sauces

One way to avoid foods higher in carbs -- like tomatoes -- is to experiment with other classic Italian sauces and flavors such as Alfredo, pesto, oil, garlic and butter.

Chef Bianco says the reason we usually associate Italian cooking with red sauces is because there were are lot of southern Italians who immigrated to America and brought their style of cooking here. "Italian cuisine is really defined by regional tastes with each region relying on what is grown or cultivated locally. Many times all that's needed is good extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and fresh herbs," she says.


Sautéed Spinach Salad with Crispy Pancetta & Balsamic Vinegar

This is a wonderful alternative to a fresh, cold spinach salad. If you cannot get pancetta, use a slab of bacon instead.

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or more to taste)
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 package (10 ounces) fresh spinach
1/2 medium clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chicken broth
2 slices (1/8 inch thick) pancetta, cut in medium dice
3 tablespoons good-quality balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)

Directions:
1. Put the olive oil and red pepper flakes in a large sauté pan over high heat for about 30 seconds, or until the oil is hot but not smoking.

2. Add the spinach and cook for about one minute or until the leaves are just beginning to wilt. (Don't worry if the pile in the pan is high; the leaves will wilt quickly and the pile will become much smaller.)

3. Add the garlic and cook just until it begins to turn golden brown. Add the chicken broth, cook for one minute more, transfer the spinach to serving plates, and return the skillet to the heat.

4. Cook the diced pancetta for two to three minutes, or until it becomes crispy. Turn off the heat, and transfer the pancetta with a slotted spoon to a paper towel.

5. To serve, top the spinach with the pancetta, drizzle with balsamic vinegar, and add a bit more oil, if desired. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Makes about two (1-cup) servings.

Per serving: 18.96g carbs, 6.79g dietary fiber, 7.57g, protein, 23.33g total fat, 20.31mg cholesterol, 1,404.97mg sodium, 306.62 calories


Eggs and Peppers

This is a classic "peasant" dish from the Italian region of Calabria. This dish will work with bell peppers or mild chili peppers if Italian frying peppers are not available.

Ingredients:
3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 Italian frying peppers, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1 small clove garlic, minced
8 large eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Italian (flat leaf) parsley, stems removed and chopped

Directions:
1. Put the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over high heat for about 30 seconds and cook the peppers in the hot oil for one to two minutes, or until the peppers have softened. Stir occasionally to prevent them from burning.

2. Cook the garlic for about 15 seconds, just until it starts to turn golden, then reduce the heat. Season the eggs with salt and pepper.

3. Add the eggs and turn, as you would when making scrambled eggs, until they are cooked, about two minutes.

4. Remove from the heat, adjust seasonings if necessary, place on a warm platter, and sprinkle with fresh chopped parsley.

Makes four servings.

Per serving: 1.59g carbs, 0.20g dietary fiber, 12.79g, protein, 24.02g total fat, 423.00mg cholesterol, 669.30mg sodium, 277.49 calories


Shrimp Scampi with Spinach

This is a quick and flavorful dish that can be served alone or even as a sauce over another fish -- such as tuna or sea bass.

Ingredients:
4 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of red pepper flakes
12 medium shrimp, shells removed, cleaned and deveined
1/2 small clove garlic, minced
2 to 3 tablespoons dry white wine (One.6 Chardonnay used in nutritional counts)
1 bag (10 ounces) fresh spinach
1 tablespoon Italian (flat leaf) parsley, stems removed and chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)

Directions:
1. Put the oil and the red pepper flakes in a large skillet over high heat for about 30 seconds, until the oil is hot but not smoking.

2. Cook the shrimp until they begin to turn pink on one side, about one minute. Turn the shrimp so they cook on the other side and sauté the garlic for about 15 seconds, until it starts to turn golden.

3. Add the wine and cook for about 30 seconds. Cook the spinach for about one minute, until the leaves begin to wilt and the shrimp are completely pink on the outside and opaque on the inside. Sprinkle with the parsley.

4. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a warm serving plate.

Makes two entrée or four side dish or appetizer servings.

Per (6 shrimp and 3/4-cup spinach) serving: 16.05g carbs, 6.82g dietary fiber, 10.80g, protein, 35.65g total fat, 54.72mg cholesterol, 862.17mg sodium, 429.03 calories


Sautéed Diced Eggplant and Tomatoes

This is a quick and delicious vegetarian sauté. The juices from the tomatoes and the oil combine to make a delicious sauce that complements the eggplant.

Ingredients:
4 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 firm, medium eggplant, unpeeled, center core removed, cut into medium dice
1/2 small clove garlic, minced
2 plum tomatoes, diced
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)
3 fresh basil leaves, sliced

Directions:
1. Put the oil in a large skillet over high heat for about 30 seconds, or until the oil is hot but not smoking.

2. Cook the diced eggplant in the hot oil until golden brown on all sides, about two minutes. 4. Remove from the heat, season with salt and pepper and transfer the mixture to a serving plate. Top with the basil slices.

Makes about four (1-cup) servings.

Per (1-cup) serving: 9.47g carbs, 0.40g dietary fiber, 1.69g, protein, 17.87g total fat, 0.00mg cholesterol, 296.35mg sodium, 197.88 calories

All meals featured here are based on recipes by Chef Silvia Bianco, from her book Simply Sauté.


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