Don Mauer: Keeping the family-style dinner fit

Apr. 22, 2013 @ 02:07 PM

Creating lower-fat, reduced-calorie, great tasting meals got many folks calling me The LeanWizard.
My love of big-flavored, juicy hamburgers loaded with fresh onions, dill pickles, mustard and ketchup earned me the nickname Burger Boy.
Since I’m a wiz at one-pan, get-it-to-the-table-fast stovetop cooking, not multi-step casseroles, no one’s ever called me The Casserole Kid.
Yet that didn’t stop me from recently heading into the kitchen and making one.
In an effort to both maintain my “LeanWizard” status and impress first-time dinner guests and their children, I decided a homey casserole would be ideal. So I headed to my cookbooks in search of the perfect casserole that would be both lean and nearly effortless.
After grazing through several cookbooks and wandering around online recipe sources, I decided to make a casserole using fresh zucchini (a personal favorite) and spicy Italian sausage tossed together with pasta, tomatoes and cheese. Healthy and delicious.
While online, I tripped across the little-known fact that today’s zucchini could be genetically modified (GMO). Unlike soybeans, corn and canola that have been genetically modified to resist dousing by Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, GMO zucchini resists a zucchini virus.
For the children coming to dinner, since GMO’s still raise significant questions, I chose to go with organic zucchini and headed to my natural foods store and found reasonably priced organic zucchini (I only needed 1 1/2 pounds).
Since this was going to be a family-style dinner, I also picked up organic whole wheat pasta and canned tomatoes, as well as organic half-and-half and naturally-raised spicy Italian pork sausage. Those hearty ingredients were getting me excited about making my casserole. One more lean issue to solve, though: whole milk mozzarella cheese (7 fat grams per ounce); the original casserole recipe required it.
When I weighed more than 325 pounds, whole milk mozzarella cheese, thanks to its creamy consistency and buttery flavor, topped many of my homemade pizzas. For this casserole, I decided to go with reduced-fat mozzarella cheese (4.5 fat grams), since the fat in the “real” half-and-half and imported parmesan cheese would sufficiently transport this casserole’s cornucopia of flavors.
As is the case with many casseroles, getting all the ingredients prepped took some time — quartering and slicing zucchini ... squishing the canned tomatoes ... peeling and mincing the garlic.
The recipe required sautéing and then simmering the zucchini. With the addition of baking the zucchini in the casserole it seemed like a fast track to mushy, unappealing results. To avoid that possible disaster, I simply sautéed the zucchini and then mixed it into the casserole just before baking.
How did my casserole turn out? Sensational. My adult guests asked for the recipe before dinner was over and their children loved it and didn’t mind that it was a bit spicy.
The Casserole Kid may soon be my new moniker.
Don Mauer’s “Lean and Lovin’ It” column appears every other Wednesday. Don welcomes comments, suggestions and recipe makeover requests at leanwizard@aol.com.
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Try this recipe: Next time you have special friends coming over, try this recipe. And be prepared to share a copy before dinner’s over.

Penne with Spicy Sausage and Zucchini in Creamy Tomato Sauce
1 pound uncooked, organic whole-wheat penne pasta
12 ounces hot turkey Italian sausage, casing removed (I used Niman Ranch’s Spicy Uncured Italian Sausage)
1 1/2 pounds medium organic zucchini, quartered length wise and cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 tablespoon dried oregano, crumbled
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 cans (28 ounces) organic no-salt-added whole tomatoes
1/4 cup organic half-and-half
Olive oil cooking spray
6 ounces (about 1 1/2 cups) grated reduced-fat mozzarella cheese
2 ounces (about 1/2 cup) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Place oven rack in center position and heat oven to 375 degrees.
Cook pasta according to package directions; drain and set aside.
Place a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage and sauté for 5 minutes, breaking it up as it cooks. Cook until lightly browned; remove sausage from pan and set aside.
Add zucchini to pan and sauté, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes, or until just starting to brown; remove from pan and set aside. Add oregano, thyme, red pepper, garlic and vinegar to the pan and cook 2 to 3 minutes or until the liquid in the pan reduces by half.
While the vinegar cooks, add the tomatoes to a large bowl and, using clean hands, crush the tomatoes. Add crushed tomatoes and their liquid to the pan, bring to a low simmer and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the half-and-half. Add pasta, sausage and zucchini to the mixture; stirring and folding to combine.
Lightly spray a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish or pan with olive oil. Spoon half the pasta mixture in to the dish, Sprinkle with half the mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. Top with remaining pasta mixture; sprinkle evenly with remaining cheese. Bake 20-25 minutes or until browned and bubbly. Serve immediately. Serves eight, about 1 1/2 cups per serving.
Nutrition values per serving: 437 calories (30.3 percent from fat), 14.7 g fat (4.2 g saturated fat), 56.8 g carbohydrate, 9.4 g fiber, 19 g protein, 18 mg cholesterol, 709 mg sodium.