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Culinary Siblings Give Pasta A Healthy Makeover


Before the paleos and gluten police declared it the enemy, pasta was king, and its queen was Lidia Bastianich. The celebrity chef specializes in Italian-American cooking, and with her show on public television, she helped put pasta on heavy rotation in home kitchens throughout the country. Her son, Joe, describes his mother as the fairy godmother of pasta, so it was something of a shock to read the cautionary title of a new family cookbook. Joseph Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali, Lidia's own children, have teamed up to write "Healthy Pasta: The Sexy, Skinny, And Smart Way To Eat Your Favorite Food." Joe and Tanya are with us now in our studios in New York. Thank you very much for coming in.

JOSEPH BASTIANICH: Thanks so much - happy to be here.

TANYA BASTIANICH MANUALI: Thank you for having us.

WERTHEIMER: So, Joe, does pasta have a problem? You're a restaurateur. I mean, people order it in your places. Is it calories or is it gluten or what?

BASTIANICH: I think it has a historical problem. It carries a lot of baggage over the '80s and '90s and last two or three decades as portions were taken beyond the bounds of what any sensible Italian would've eaten or recommended and endless bowls of pasta and condiments and the sauce is more voluminous than the noodle itself. And this kind of brings it all back in a very simple way to the culture of the Italian table eating pasta, where the noodle is the star of the show and properly cooking the noodle is the technique and salting the water properly. And the sauce is simply a condiment no different than a dressing would be for a salad.

WERTHEIMER: But answer my question - do you think pasta has a problem?

BASTIANICH: I think it's having it come back. People - at least we're seeing in our restaurants - want to eat pasta. They're becoming more intelligent consumers of the product. So it's - it has a problem, but it's in therapy, and there's light at the end of the tunnel.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this cookbook promises 100 pasta recipes all under 500 calories a portion.

BASTIANICH: Promises and delivers.

WERTHEIMER: OK. Let's focus on one that would seem to be a challenge - lasagna. Tanya, tell us how you get that dish to be 403 calories per serving.

MANUALI: The vegetable lasagna is just that. The title should key you in that it's a lot of vegetable. It's very light. We're not talking about a lasagna laden with whole milk mozzarella, and it's about the flavor. So you got to use fresh basil. You have to use a little bit of peperoncino - the red pepper flakes - to spice it up, and really good San Marzano tomatoes. So this is where product choice really comes into play. Use the best and the flavor will come out the best.

BASTIANICH: You know, for me, the lasagna is like the crust of the burnt pasta at the edge of the pan where the cheese burns and the pasta gets a little hard. On the same fork is some of the gooey, more overcooked pasta in the middle. So you're having the essential lasagna experience just at a third of the calories.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you include a recipe for making gluten-free pasta from scratch. That seems to me that that has got to be, for a Bastianich, heretical.

MANUALI: No because, you know, gluten-free is a separate issue from pasta. There are people who choose to be gluten-free, but there are people who necessarily, medically have to be gluten-free. So we give that option, and you can use this pasta with any of the sauces almost. You have to cut it a little a thicker. You have to be careful when you cook it that it doesn't fall apart.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, I wonder if there really is a substitute in your mind for pasta made with wheat. I mean, can you suggest something that doesn't taste nasty or smell funny or fall apart when you cook it?

BASTIANICH: Sure, I could say many. There's a pasta on the shelves in Italy called Banza. It's made of chickpeas. There's lots of corn pastas that are - sometimes you couldn't even tell the difference. So there are some substitutes, you know, and sometimes I'll choose to have them because of their effect on how I feel or - you know, in the same way that you eat pasta, there are other grains. You can have polenta. You know, there's a lot of things in the Italian vernacular of eating that are sauced and that are starchy or carby in a way that kind of can emulate the pasta experience.

WERTHEIMER: Looking through your book, I wondered if maybe there was something missing, if there was a dish that in the end you just decided OK, we can't really remake this one. We can't get a do-over on this one. Is there such a dish? Something that is just - just does not want to be slimmed down.

MANUALI: Well, you know, carbonara would be the first one to come to mind, right?

BASTIANICH: Spaghetti.

MANUALI: Carbonara's heavy.

BASTIANICH: Everyone's favorite pasta. The best breakfast pasta - bacon, egg and cheese pasta, right? Then there's really no way of doing it for 500 calories.


BASTIANICH: We spent several months in seclusion trying to perfect the 500 calorie carbonara. And after our research grant ran out, we went back without a solution.

MANUALI: You can make it lighter. You can use, you know, skim and that - but it's not carbonara. And it's really not worth - if you're going to eat a carbonara, you should just go for it.

WERTHEIMER: Tanya Bastianich Manuali and Joseph Bastianich - their new cookbook is called "Healthy Pasta." Thank you both very much.

BASTIANICH: Thank you for having us.

MANUALI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.