Michele Atkins

Spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread is a traditional family favorite. Simple, inexpensive and accepted by all. And a great starting point for limitless creativity.

Add a little fresh spinach, bell pepper, zucchini or mushrooms for texture, color and nutrition. Or experiment with a totally different sauce, like pesto.

One cup of cooked spaghetti has approximately 220 calories, 1 gram of fat and no cholesterol. Most pastas on the market are enriched with iron, too. Whole-grain pastas contain about the same calories as regular pasta but have more protein, fiber and vitamins.

Swapping white pasta for whole wheat adds many health benefits and will help you feel full longer. Whole grains reduce risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. They contain valuable antioxidants as well as B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron and fiber.

There are more than 600 types of pasta, and some have more than 1,300 names. The three most popular pastas are: penne, spaghetti and macaroni. The three most popular pasta dishes are: macaroni cheese, spaghetti and lasagna.

What’s the “correct” way to cook pasta? Al dente. Al dente means “still firm when bitten.” Don’t overcook pasta. This waterlogs it. If pasta is cooked properly, it should stick to a wall when it is thrown.

Uncooked pasta can be kept for up to one year. Cooked pasta can be frozen and re-eaten within three months. 

Pasta makes a solid base for veggies that need to be eaten as well as what’s fresh in season. Try this classic combination of basil with summer squash along with goat cheese.

Basil or Parsley Pesto  

This pesto recipe is perfect to toss in pasta, season chicken or fish, use as a sandwich spread, or even thin down with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice for a salad dressing.


1 cup fresh basil leaves or tender stems, or 1 cup of flat leaf parsley

1-3 cloves garlic

1/3 cup pine nuts, walnuts, almonds or pecans (taste best if roasted)

3-6 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon salt


Finely chop ingredients together in food processor. Add 1/2 cup olive oil , process a little more, until a thick paste is made.

To freeze for later use, form the pesto into golf-sized balls, place on a sheet pan in the freezer.

Once frozen, place in container for longer storage.

Summer Squash Pasta with

Goat Cheese


8 ounces of whole wheat pasta

1/2 cup walnut, coarsely chopped

8 ounces sausage (optional)

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 small-medium zucchini squash, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 small-medium yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch pieces


Freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces goat cheese (or cream cheese)

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves

Lemon zest for garnish


Cook pasta per package directions, then taste to make sure it is done. 

I have found that whole wheat pasta usually takes a couple minutes longer than directed.

While pasta is cooking, place a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the walnuts. Toss or stir them until they are toasted, 2-3 minutes. Set aside.

Cook sausage or protein of choice and cut into bite-sized pieces.

Place a large skillet over medium heat and add the butter and olive oil. Add garlic and squash, stir frequently until it is cooked to desired texture. 

Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. 

Add cooked pasta to skillet with zucchini, toss well. Stir in the goat cheese, sausage and toasted walnuts. Add black pepper to taste.

Stir in fresh basil, top with zest lemon as desired.

Serves four.

Mediterranean Pasta Salad


One 8-ounce package orzo pasta

1 pint grape tomatoes, sliced in half

1 large yellow bell pepper, chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

8 ounces fat-free feta cheese, crumbled

1 large cucumber, peeled and sliced

2 green onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons fresh oregano, minced

Juice of 2 lemons

Black pepper to taste


Cook orzo per package directions. Place in large salad bowl.

Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Skillet Pasta


1 pound lean ground beef or turkey

2 cans diced tomatoes

1 can tomato sauce

16 ounces cottage cheese

1 cup mozzarella cheese

12 ounce bag short cut pasta

1-1/2 teaspoons dried parsley

1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 tablespoons dried Italian seasoning


In large, deep skillet with lid, brown ground meat over medium high heat. Drain any leftover fat after cooking. Add in tomatoes, tomato sauce, parsley, oregano and Italian seasoning. Stir in 2 cups water. Heat until simmering. Stir in uncooked pasta. Cover and cook over medium heat until noodles are soft.

Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. Add 1/4 cup water if it seems too dry to finish cooking pasta. Stir in cottage cheese and mozzarella. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes.

Tip: Try adding spinach or zucchini.

Meatball Tortellini Soup


8 ounces ground beef chuck

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for topping

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 clove garlic, grated

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 carrots, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1 quart low-sodium chicken broth

One 9-ounce package refrigerated cheese tortellini

4 cups loosely packed baby spinach (3 ounces)


Combine beef, Parmesan, 2 tablespoons parsley, the egg, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste in a medium bowl; mix with your hands until just combined. Form into 1-inch meatballs; set aside.

Heat olive oil in a pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add meatballs and cook, turning, until golden, 3-4 minutes; remove to a plate.

Add carrots and celery to pot; cook, stirring, until just softened, 5 minutes. Add broth and 3 cups water; bring to boil. Return meatballs to pot along with remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Simmer until meatballs are just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add tortellini, cook until they float to the top, about 4 minutes. Add spinach, cook, stirring, until wilted, 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper. Top with Parmesan.


MICHELE ATKINS is the director for the Henry County Extension Service. Her email address is matkins1@utk.edu.

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