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Healthy Cooking: Lighten up cacio e pepe with spaghetti squash

Spaghetti squash shreds into “noodles,” making it a delightfully low-calorie pasta substitute. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES
Spaghetti squash shreds into “noodles,” making it a delightfully low-calorie pasta substitute. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES

The hardest thing about cooking spaghetti squash is identifying which of the many squash currently in the market is actually the spaghetti variety. This amazingly low-calorie, gluten-free substitute for pasta is a hulk of a veggie, vaguely resembling the yellow, oblong body a child draws on a homemade Mother’s Day card. It’s longer than an acorn squash, and without the narrow neck of a butternut squash. Cut it in half horizontally around the middle, and you will see telltale stringy fibers that look like spaghetti noodles. It’s one of the most tasty and versatile vegetables of the season. And it couldn’t be easier to prepare.

Start by scraping out the seeds and any loose strings. Then place the squash cut-side down on a baking sheet. Roast it in a high-heat oven for 30-45 minutes; like actual pasta, you can vary the cook time to create noodles that are either firmer or more tender. Run a fork around the inside to scrape the flesh into noodles. And be sure to keep the outer rinds. The cooked shells double as bowls, which are festive and keep the cleanup easy.

Spaghetti squash noodles taste slightly sweet and naturally buttery. Their texture is ethereal, making spaghetti squash an ideal partner for lighter sauces. You can toss your squash noodles with a can of diced tomatoes, plus garlic, basil and crushed red pepper for a low-calorie weeknight Pasta Pomodoro. No olive oil is necessary — unlike traditional pasta noodles, squash noodles are naturally juicy. While the delicate noodles don’t stand up to heavy handfuls of mozzarella, a la lasagna, cheese lovers will enjoy this Cacio e Pepe. Literally translated as “cheese and pepper,” Cacio e Pepe is ready as quickly as it takes you to sprinkle cheese and twist the pepper mill.

There are a few easy tricks that allow me to get away with a cheese-forward recipe in a healthy cooking column. I use Pecorino Romano, which is a sheep’s milk cheese that is similar to cow’s milk Parmesan, but more flavorful. The stronger flavor means we can use less of it without sacrificing taste. For additional savory notes, I add nutritional yeast. Not to be confused with bread-baking yeast, nutritional yeast offers cheesy, salty (but sodium-free) umami and also a generous dose of B vitamins. You can find nutritional yeast in the bulk-foods aisle of most grocery stores, which means you can purchase the exact amount you want. (For this recipe, I needed less than a dollar’s worth of “nooch.”) Because black pepper features prominently in the recipe, I pass over the shaker of ground pepper and instead crack whole peppercorns in a pepper mill. Peppercorns offer a brightness you can instantly identify, the same way you can now find the spaghetti squash among the gourds.

Pecorino Romano works well with the delicate noodles in Spaghetti Squash Cacio e Pepe. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES
Pecorino Romano works well with the delicate noodles in Spaghetti Squash Cacio e Pepe. CONTRIBUTED BY KELLIE HYNES

Recipe: Spaghetti Squash Cacio e Pepe
  • 2 medium spaghetti squash, about 4 pounds each
  • 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper, plus additional for serving
  • Arrange the oven racks so that the top rack is about 10 inches from the top of the oven. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
  • Cut both squash in half horizontally, as if around the equator. Scoop out and discard the loose, stringy flesh and squash seeds, or reserve the seeds for roasting.
  • Place the squash halves cut-side down on the prepared baking sheet. Bake 15 minutes. Rotate the pan and bake an additional 15 minutes. Check to see if a fork can easily slide from the inside of the squash to the firm outer rind. If not, cook the squash an additional 5-15 minutes.
  • Allow the squash to rest until it is touchable. Scrape a fork around the inside of the squash in a circular motion, shredding the flesh into “noodles.” Place the shredded squash in a large mixing bowl and use the fork to toss it with the Pecorino, nutritional yeast and cracked pepper. Divide the squash mixture among the squash shells and place the shells cut-side up on the baking sheet. Return the squash to the oven and bake an additional 5-10 minutes until hot. Sprinkle additional pepper on top if desired and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 70 calories (percent of calories from fat, 24), 3 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 2 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 4 milligrams cholesterol, 74 milligrams sodium.

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