RECIPE: When the pandemic gives you lemons, make lemon pasta

Fresh lemon juice and Greek yogurt make a tangy, good for you pasta in 15 minutes or less. Use whole-wheat pasta for extra flavor, fiber and protein. (Kellie Hynes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Fresh lemon juice and Greek yogurt make a tangy, good for you pasta in 15 minutes or less. Use whole-wheat pasta for extra flavor, fiber and protein. (Kellie Hynes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Kellie Hynes

Credit: Kellie Hynes

When the lockdowns started, I loaded my pantry with pasta. Dried noodles are inexpensive, filling, and if we had to stay home, by golly we were going to revel in our gluten. While we couldn’t travel to Italy, our Year of the Carb allowed us to explore Italian recipes like this lightened-up, 15-minute pasta al limone (aka lemon pasta).

Traditional pasta al limone is known for its decadent sauce, made from lemon juice and shocking amounts of butter and heavy cream. The challenge, if we want to wear buttoned pants in post-pandemic life, is to retain the tart goodness with just a fraction of the fat.

Heart-healthy olive oil is an easy substitute for butter. And I often swap nonfat Greek yogurt for cream. But how much yogurt? Instead of the traditional cup of cream, a generous tablespoon of yogurt, thinned with lemon juice and pasta water, was just enough sauce to add flavor without heaviness. (Pro tip: Reserve a little extra of the pasta water to add moisture when reheating any leftovers.)

In the traditional recipe, the fat not only adds texture, but it also balances the bright lemon notes. Here, pecorino Romano gets the job done. A few sprinkles of this sheep’s milk cheese add savory flavors that mellow any sharpness from the yogurt and lemon juice.

A bonus benefit of this recipe is that it can be flexed to accommodate a variety of diets. Meat lovers will find the lemon pasta delicious with shrimp, like a light scampi, or chicken. Vegans can use a few more splashes of olive oil instead of the yogurt, and swap cheesy-tasting nutritional yeast for the pecorino. When it comes to culinary travels, all are welcome on the lemon pasta journey.

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Pasta al limone. (Kellie Hynes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Pasta al limone. (Kellie Hynes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Kellie Hynes

Credit: Kellie Hynes

Pasta al Limone
  • 2 quarts water
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 8 ounces dried pasta, preferably whole-wheat
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 heaping tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons grated pecorino Romano, plus more for optional garnish
  • 1 heaping tablespoon plain nonfat Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chiffonade cut
  • Bring water and salt to a boil in a medium pot over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions for “al dente.” Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water and drain.
  • While the pasta rests in the strainer, heat the oil in the pasta pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes, and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  • Return the pasta to the pot with the garlic and red pepper. Stir. Add the lemon juice, pecorino Romano and Greek yogurt. Thin with 1/4 cup pasta water and stir again. Garnish with basil and additional pecorino if desired. Serve hot. Add the remaining pasta water to any leftovers before reheating.
  • Serves 4 as a side dish; double the recipe for a main dish.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving, using whole-wheat pasta: 270 calories (percent of calories from fat, 22), 10 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 7 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 8 milligrams cholesterol, 236 milligrams sodium.
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