Bubba's Pasta Skillet #1

So, you think cooking and eating healthy is time consuming and expensive. Well, I can help a little with time, but that isn't really the point. Healthy is better than quick to begin with. Cooking can be a meditation of sorts. There isn't anything good for you that can be ready in 6 minutes. And the stuff that comes at you through the window of your car is even worse – no matter what you choose. Their oatmeal has twice as many calories as out-of-the-box Quaker Oats. I love to cook. It is completely relaxing and rejuvenating for me. I understand it is probably not this way for everyone, but I'm here to tell you that delicious, healthy food is easier than you think. And cheaper too.

Now there is a wrinkle that I must explain, but I want you to forget it as soon as you finish the next two paragraphs. Recently, I saw a movie called “Forks over Knives.” The movie is about the amazing health benefits of plant-based nutrition, completely plant-based nutrition – vegan. I was most of the way there already, and I've decided to give it a try. My health is good, but I want to see what better results I can muster.

Avoiding meat is also comfortable as a Buddhist. I have yet to make a conscious decision about my practice and meat, but ever since I began to take Buddhism more seriously, I have drifted toward the vegetables. A gradual decision like this, based on comfort and unconscious, is a better decision. Further more, not eating meat is very good for Mother Earth. The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all the world's transportation industries combined. The amount of water, energy and [duh] grain that goes into a pound of meat is staggering. Switching to vegan is better for the planet than buying a hybrid automobile.

To help me with this change, I signed up for a Wellness Coach through the Center for Good Health in Holland, Mi [full disclosure: the CfGH is a satellite facility of Holland Hospital, my employer]. The CfGH is a great resource in Holland. They offer “a wide variety of childbirth, health & wellness classes, lectures, special events, support groups, personalized services and workshops in addition to fitness classes.” I saw the movie at the center and have taken yoga classes there too. For the next three weeks, I'm doing something close to the Engine 2 Diet – no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no processed foods and very little added oil. It's Day 5 and I feel great already, but on to healthy food the fast and easy way!

Bubba's Pasta Skillet #1, serves two to four.

2/3 cup of vegetable broth or water or 2 Tablespoons of olive oil for sautéing
Half an onion or so chopped [depending on your taste, anywhere from half to a whole medium onion]
Half a medium zucchini, chopped [I don't like the monsters, half of a 7 or 8” long zucchini, ymmv]
1/3 of a red bell pepper, chopped [bell peppers are a stock item in my kitchen]
2 tsp of minced garlic [stock item too]
½ tsp of Italian Seasoning [because I was lazy, fresh herbs would be better but not as fast]
Two or three stalks of celery, chopped [from the very heart with a few leaves, I had these around too]
A Portabello mushroom cap, diced [stock for me, but often available individually]
Three blanched Roma Tomatoes
Half pound or so of your favorite pasta [increase pasta & veggies for more guests]
a couple pinches of salt in the water

And, crank it up a notch with a hotter pepper, olives, artichoke hearts etc.

I know you're already quaking about the 'fancy' blanched Roma's but bear with me. This is easy peasy, you're going to boil water for pasta anyway. Start by chopping veggies, get your mind of the “blanched Roma tomatoes.” This sauce, because of these blanched tomatoes, will knock you out!

Add the salt and start heating a quart and a half of water in a 3 quart pot. As the water heats, start sautéing the veggies – onions first, then as the onions reach translucent, add the mushroom, followed by the garlic and then the other veggies excepting the Roma Tomatoes. Add your enhancements here too. The skillet should be on Medium Low at this point if you're using broth or water like me or a bit higher if using olive oil.

When the pot water begins to boil, drop in the three Romas. In 3 to 5 minutes, the tomato skin will crack open. Dip the tomatoes out of the water with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl to cool. Dump your pasta in the pot while the water continues to boil. Follow the pasta package instructions for time, etc.

The tomatoes will never cool fast enough if you're making this for dinner, but I discovered a secret weapon! I put the Romas in a bowl to cool and even put them in the fridge while I worked on the pasta. When I went to use the tomatoes and they were still pretty warm. Too warm to squeeze open in my bare hand. I found a long neglected silicone hot pad in the kitchen. Squeezing the tomatoes in a cloth hot pad would be a mess, but the silicone worked like a charm – and rinsed right off. Squeeze all the meat of the Romas right into the skillet with the other veggies. Turn the skillet down to a half a notch or so above all the way low. Chop the tomato meat up with a wooden spoon or spatula, but pull out the thick stem ends. Mix the well with the rest of the skillet. Discard the stem ends and the skin. Cook for 5 or 10 minutes more. The reason you are doing this is the wonderful richness of the Romas. This sauce will be as good or better than anything you've had in a restaurant. Way better than Fazoli's or Olive Garden, and healthier too.

The pasta should be getting done about now. Remember to keep an eye on the clock and the pasta. I always take a piece out to check how it chews anyway. I used whole wheat penne and whole wheat rotini pasta; half and half. Whole wheat pasta is a great healthy idea, but if you have regular pasta in the pantry - use it up. Mine was done in about 11 minutes, plenty of time to work the tomatoes in. When you are satisfied the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and toss with the vegetables in a skillet. Serve in pasta bowls. 

I cranked up the flavor in my skillet by adding a couple hot banana peppers right out of Mom's garden. I also had a jar of Alcaparrado on hand and added a half cup or so. Alcaparrado is a Spanish mix of Manzanilla Olives, Pimento and Capers. This salty, sour mix was the perfect compliment to the rich tomato and garlic flavors. I actually found my jar on clearance at the grocery store – a culinary bargain hunter's treasure!

I can't give you an exact cost figure on this meal. I had the pasta in the pantry. Most of the veggies, and the minced garlic, I keep around. The olive mix was about three bucks on clearance. I have less than $10 dollars in the whole thing. Further, I made two lunch containers for work after I ate a bowl and a half tonight. With more veggies and an appropriate amount of pasta [¼ pound per person before cooking], this could easily be stretched to feed four to six. A nice green salad, some crusty bread and a bottle of wine would still cost less than $30 dollars. A wonderful, simple meal for you and three of your friends that eats like an extravagance. I made mine completely vegan, but Parmesan or Romano cheese on top would be great. Not vegan? Try tearing up the breast meat of a deli roaster chicken and sprinkle that on top before serving; no more time and add only about five bucks more.

From foggy idea through Google search for blanching to chopping and cooking, and all the way to half eaten was less than an hour. Along the way, I kept a healthy promise to myself, learned the blanching that I saw Anthony Bourdain do on TV years ago and relaxed my way through chopping and cooking. This meal can be quick, but healthy is the point. If you can, saunter your way through the preparation; invite your family or friends into the kitchen to chat while you work. It won't be distracting, it will enrich the meal and your life. Better get two bottles of wine in that case.