Are ‘pasta’ and ‘gluten-free’ compatible? Yes!

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Marlie Johnson, 2004, in Calabria.

Today I’m welcoming my sister, Marlie Johnson, to the blog with a food post on eating gluten-free and Italian:

One of the best things about being part of a family with Italian roots has to be the food.  Pasta, pizza, pastries! These have been staples on the table my entire life… until about a year ago.  I was diagnosed with an allergy to wheat!  That explained a lot of problems I had been having, but it also caused havoc with my diet. After a lot of research, I decided it was easier to go gluten free than try to avoid just wheat.  Then I found that gluten free is not the tastiest.  I found a few gluten free pastas, but they didn’t taste very good.  I was very surprised when I found two companies in Italy who were making gluten free pasta, and it is good!   They are Delallo and Barilla.  Between the two, there is a great variety of pasta, including penne, spaghetti, orzo, shells, and fusilli – these are the ones I have found so far.Marlie-4

The most important lesson I have learned for cooking gluten free pasta is to not overcook it AT ALL.  It will turn to mush.   If you are going to add the pasta to a sauce and bake it, then stop cooking it about a minute before the directions for al dente – it will finish cooking while baking, and be perfect.

Here is a recipe that I have used gluten free penne in, and it turned out great.  I had it “taste tested” by people who only eat gluten free, and several who eat anything!  They all said it was really good, and asked when I was going to make it again.

Here is the original recipe (what I changed follows):

1 lb hot Italian sausage links                    1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1 (16 oz ) package of rigatoni                   2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (24 oz) jar of marinara sauce                 salt and pepper to taste

1 bulb fennel, trimmed, thinly sliced       1 cup shredded Monzzarella

1/2 cup grated Parmesean                           1 roasted red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 cup grated Asiago                                  1/2 med. yellow onion, chopped.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, and cook pasta until almost tender, about 10 minutes.

Cook the sausage in a large skillet over medium heat, turning frequently, until cooked through.  Remove from skillet, cool, and cut into slices.  Add the garlic, fennel and onion to the skillet and season with salt and pepper.  Cook for about 5 minutes, then add the roasted red peppers, basil and sausage and the marinara sauce.  Heat through over low heat until warmed.


Ready to bake…

Combine the pasta with the sauce and vegetables in a 9 x 13 baking pan.  Spread the cheeses on top.  Garnish with a few fennel leaves.  Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and broil for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is lightly browned.

The changes I made are:

I used bulk sausage instead of links.

I used Barilla Gluten Free Penne Pasta, and cooked it one minute less than the package called for al dente.

I cooked the vegetable for about 10 -12 minutes, until the fennel was almost fully cooked.

I did use a jar of marinara… (sorry, Grandma)

…. and ready to eat!

Would I change anything else the next time I make it?  I would try it with sweet Italian sausage, or an equal mix of hot and mild.  It had great flavor, but it was spicy hot!  For me this one is a keeper, and I will make it gluten free for everyone who is coming to dinner!

Serve with salad, or a green vegetable, garlic bread and your favorite wine.  Watch salad dressings for gluten…it hides in all kinds of condiments!  You can make croutons and garlic bread from gluten free bread.   Rudi’s brand bread is the best I have found.  It is good for French toast ….if you want to send your taste buds a little farther north in Europe!


Winter pasta: Pasta e fagioli

The pasta e fagioli I made while writing this blog post.

The pasta e fagioli I made while writing this blog post.

As I’m writing this, the weather is damp and chilly, and the mid-winter is a great time for pasta e fagioli, an Italian peasant dish that has as many versions as there are Italian kitchens, I think. It might be Italy’s best known meatless meal, although many recipes add meats like pancetta, diced ham, salt pork, or bacon.

Today I’m making a meatless version, but not truly vegetarian, since I’m using chicken broth. One thing I like about pasta e fagioli is the use of basics. I am rarely without onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, a can of chopped tomatoes (if I don’t have fresh ones to use), a can of beans, and some pasta.

Regarding the seasonings: Since it’s a wintertime dish, dried herbs are entirely appropriate–basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley. Where I live, I have parsley growing outdoors much of the winter too, so I’ll chop some fresh to add with the pasta. Some add some zip with red pepper flakes. I like ground black pepper, and am fairly generous with it.

Regarding the beans: Ideally I would use cannellini beans, however today a can of great northern beans was handy. Kidney or pinto beans will work. I haven’t tried it with garbanzos, but  wouldn’t rule them out if that’s what I had available.

Regarding the pasta: Most recipes suggest ditalini, the tiny rings I have always thought of as macaroni salad pasta. But any smallish pasta will work. Because I’m usually cooking for two, I rarely use a full box of pasta.  What I like to use in soup is the last little bit left over from a box–so today I’m throwing in a cup or so of whole grain rotini. 

A pot of pasta e fagioli will make a great light supper with nothing more than garlic bread or cheesy focaccia. Top each bowl with parmesan. If you have big eaters to feed, you can pair the soup with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and add a simple dessert.

Wherever you are, you can enjoy a little taste of Italy with an easy to make, yummy to eat, pot of pasta e fagioli!

Rapini and all her cousins!

I stopped by Nash’s Organic Produce stand a few days ago, and thought I saw some rapini, a vegetable I discovered in Italy, and have sprouting in my own garden as I write this. It is also called broccoli rabe or raab, and a few other names too.

The recipe for this Rapini and Penne Pasta is online at the Live It Up Vegan blog.

But no. It was not broccoli rabe, but cabbage rabe that I saw, and another display of kale rabe. I took home a couple of bunches of cabbage rabe, and with one bunch made a yummy mess of greens for a side dish. Very simply, it was sautéed in olive oil, with some minced garlic. Salt and pepper as you like.

The second bunch worked well sauteed with some chopped bacon and onion, a little olive oil, as a topping for some pasta. I would have tossed on some pine nuts if I had some on hand. A sprinkling of parmesan worked well with the flavors.

But back to rapini. Like broccoli, it is part of the Brassica genus, and though it is often called “broccoli rabe”, it is more closely related to turnips and mustard, and does not form heads.

Some people find the bitterness of rapini too strong. It tends to be milder when younger, just as its cousin arugula, which can be very bitter if picked late in the season. Rapini can be boiled or steamed to reduce the bitterness, but some of the nutrients will be lost.

A variety of recipes for rapini can be found online, so check out your farmers’ market or supermarket, and give your palate a little trip to Italy!


One of the big surprises for an American visiting Italy for the first time: pasta and its many forms and finishes.

I hesitate to use the word “sauces” for fear of conjuring the image of jars of store-bought spaghetti sauce, or the thick tomato sauce my uncle used to serve when he owned a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska in the 1960s. Dishes the size of serving platters, piled with spaghetti, a few baseball-sized meatballs, all buried in a thick sludge of his home-cooked tomato sauce. Enough for a family of four, if you planned to have a little dessert.

Tasty, yes. But Italian? Not so much. I saw no pasta in Italy remotely like it.

Instead, the traditional second course of Italian meals, pasta is served in more modest portions, keeping in mind that the antipasto has already taken the edge off your hunger, and the main meat course is yet to follow. And pasta is served with a variety of vegetables, bits of meat, nuts, oils—often there is not a tomato in sight!

Soon after I came home from Italy in 2004, I bought a cookbook called Four Seasons Pasta: A Year of Inspired Recipes in the Italian Tradition, written by Janet Fletcher.

Thank you, Janet! I cooked from her recipes two or three times a weeks, allowing me to savor my Italian experience for months longer than I might have without it. I enjoyed things I would never have put with pasta before. Artichokes, peas, beans, radicchio, arugula, kale.

Janet Fletcher acknowledges the help of the Peduzzi family of Abruzzo, and many of the recipes originate in the Italian south. Check out more about her recipes and books at

One of my favorites, perfect at this time of year, is Spaghetti con Asparagi ed Uova, or Spaghetti with Asparagus, Fried Eggs, Black Pepper, and Pecorino. This one-dish meal serves two.


1 pound asparagus

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ pound spaghetti

2 eggs

3 tablespoons freshly grated aged pecorino cheese, or toasted bread crumbs, plus more for topping.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.

Holding an asparagus spear in both hands, bend the spear gently. It will break naturally at the point at which the spear becomes tough. Repeat with the remaining asparagus. Discard the tough ends. Cut the trimmed spears on the diagonal into ½-inch pieces, leaving the tips whole. Put the asparagus in a baking dish or on a baking sheet big enough to hold them in a single layer. Toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bake until sizzling and tender, about 15 minutes.

While the asparagus is baking, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. About 2 minutes before the pasta is done, heat a skillet over moderately high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is hot, break in the eggs, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook, without turning, just until the whites are barely firm. The yolks should remain runny.

Drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot. Add the asparagus and any oil in the baking dish, then add the eggs and any oil in the skillet. Toss well, breaking up the eggs as you toss. The runny yolks will coat the spaghetti with a creamy sauce. Add the cheese or bread crumbs, then add a few grindings of black pepper. Toss again and serve immediately in warm bowls, topping with additional cheese or bread crumbs.

I’d love to see comments from anybody who gives this a try!