Cooking How-to: Italian

Start saying mangia. You're about to become a great Italian cook.

Learn how cook meals at home that rival your favorite Italian restaurant fare.

Essential Ingredients
· Spices: bay leaves, parsley, thyme, basil, fennel, garlic, red pepper flakes and dried Italian seasoning blend.

· Vegetables: artichokes, arugula, asparagus, beets, broccoli rabe, cauliflower, raddichio, eggplant, zucchini, spinach and tomatoes.

· Proteins: lean beef, veal and pork, skinless chicken breast, fava beans, garbanzo beans and cannellini beans.

Now that your kitchen is well stocked with Italian goodies, Plan-friendly Italian meals are just a step away with these tips from Jodie Shield, RD, nutritionist and recipe developer:

Canned Convenience
High-quality, canned tomatoes are a secret weapon when you want to whip up marinara sauce in minutes (choose Italian San Marzano tomatoes if you can find them — they're prized for their intense, sweet flavor and low acidity). Just sauté onions and garlic in a saucepan with a teaspoon of olive oil, add tomatoes, and let the sauce simmer while your pasta boils. Toss in some fresh basil at the end of cooking, and presto, you've got sauce. Another quick trick is to make your marinara using canned, stewed tomatoes — flavored varieties such as roasted garlic or fire-roasted will take your sauce in a new direction.

Breading Basics
Who doesn't love anything with the word parmigiana tacked on the end? But the calories that come with it are not as lovable. Instead of deep frying the chicken, veal or eggplant, dip it into egg whites, then into seasoned bread crumbs, and bake. Don't forget to take the skin off of the meat before breading.

Holy Macaroni
Penne (long tubes), farfalle (bow ties), rotelle (corkscrews), tagliatelle (long, thin, flat strands). If you love your pasta, dig in — but remember that a one-cup serving of cooked spaghetti (about the size of a tennis ball), is worth 6 PointsPlus™ values. Whole-wheat varieties are more nutritious and filling than regular semolina pasta. But if the kids won't go for the whole-wheat stuff, try half whole wheat, half regular.

In Vino There is Flavor
When using wine in recipes, most of the calories and alcohol burn off during cooking, leaving you with great flavor and hardly any PointsPlus values. Try adding wine to sauces in lieu of some of the oil or broth, or sauté vegetables with a splash of your favorite vino for flavor.

Creamy Cover
Substituting evaporated skim milk for heavy cream in a recipe cuts way down on the calories, while still lending your cream sauce or soup an authentic, rich taste.

Say Cheese
While some restaurants insist on drowning a perfectly good meal in heaps of cheese, a little really does go a long way. Grating one tablespoon of fresh, high-quality parmesan (instead of what comes in that green canister) on top of a dish will give you rich flavor for a PointsPlus value of one. And cut calories in lasagna and pizza by using part-skim mozzarella and reduced-fat or fat-free ricotta cheese. With all the other ingredients, you'll barely notice the difference.

Cut It Out
Scan your recipes for unnecessary fat. If you can sauté your onion in 1 teaspoon of olive oil instead of 2 tablespoons, do it. And if you can use half the amount of ricotta cheese in your lasagna while still maintaining the taste, go for it. Bulking out sauce with fiber-filled vegetables is a great way to fill up on fewer calories.

Helpful Tips From the Message Boards
VALJO3438 says: "I love pita pizzas! I toast [the pita] a little first, then add pizza sauce, turkey pepperoni, 1/4 cup of reduced-fat tomato-basil feta cheese and 1/4 cup part-skim mozzarella. Then just bake it until the cheeses have melted. You could also add any 0 PointsPlus™ value veggies to it ... I may add some black olives as well. Wonderful!"

Check out KNLRACHEL's vegetable lasagna recipe: "I used 2 servings of part-skim mozzarella cheese (1/3 cup), fat-free ricotta cheese (1/2 cup), about 4 servings of parmesan cheese and homemade red sauce with lots of garlic, mushrooms and onions. I layered that with sautéed zucchini and yellow squash. It was absolutely yummy!"

PORTADELLA suggests this: "If you have too much, you can put [fresh] basil in ice cube trays and then freeze. You just take what you need and use. It's not quite as good as fresh but it still holds a lot of flavor."

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