Pasta, a favorite winter comfort food

Easy skillet mac ‘n’ chese with cauliflower (Photo provided — Yvonna Fast)

Winter weather calls for warming, hearty, delicious fare — food that fills you up and gives you energy to fight that winter chill. Pasta to the rescue!

From mac and cheese and spaghetti and meatballs to tuna noodle casserole and beef stroganoff, pasta dishes are a favorite for quick, easy winter meals. And during the winter months between January and March, Americans eat 20% more noodle dishes than in the summer months. Because … pasta is warming comfort.

Comfort is a cultural thing. Comfort foods are the familiar flavors and textures of home that take us back to our childhood when we felt safe and at ease. They are soothing, satisfying, and scrumptious.

Noodles need sauces: melted cheese, as in macaroni and cheese; a creamy mushroom sauce, like in tuna noodle casserole: creamy alfredo sauce: or a tomato sauce like in spaghetti. Delicious sauces can also be made from veggies like winter squash or nuts like cashews.

We think of pasta as Italian — and the word comes from the Italian for paste or dough — but people around the world have been mixing flour with water and boiling it into noodles for thousands of years. While noodles can be made from any flour — or even any starchy food like potatoes — pasta must be made from durum wheat semolina (Triticum durum). It’s the hardest of all wheat varieties and is higher in protein and gluten content (and lower in starch) than other, softer varieties of wheat.

Butternut squash and kale pasta (Photo provided — Yvonna Fast)

The move from fresh noodles to pasta that could be dried and stored was a big step in culinary history. It is the Arabs who lay claim to inventing dry noodle products suitable for long desert journeys; the Arab historian Al Idrisi first described dried pasta in 1138. Italians perfected the art. Today, pasta is made and packaged in factories and sold in many shapes and sizes on supermarket shelves.

We crave carbohydrates because our bodies and brains require them. Carbs are soothing and calming. They help us sleep, increase our tolerance to pain, and reduce our cravings for additional carbohydrates. They raise levels of tryptophan, increasing the production of serotonin. “That blah feeling we get in the winter is related to a lack of serotonin, which is linked to lack of sunlight,” says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., author of The Serotonin Power Diet (Rodale, January 2007).

Pasta is easy and inexpensive to make for a crowd. Traditional pasta dishes — with starchy noodles and fatty sauces — tend to pile on the calories … but comforting carbs don’t have to be empty of nutrients.

Using whole-grain pasta adds fiber and nutrients, keeps you feeling full, and slows the absorption of sugar. There are also gluten-free pasta products that don’t contain wheat and are made from beans or rice.

Vegetables add more nutrients. Meat, beans, or dairy provide protein, making your pasta dish a complete meal. Even when recipes don’t call for veggies, you can layer them in.

Butternut Squash and Kale Pasta


1/2 lb. pasta of your choice (2 cups)

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 yellow onion

2 cloves garlic

1/2 butternut squash (about 2 cups, diced)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

10 ounces fresh or frozen kale


Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt and cook according to package directions.

Cook kale to desired tenderness, chop and set aside.

Chop onions and garlic and set aside.

Peel squash and cut into 2-inch cubes. Set aside.

Heat olive oil in skillet. Add onion and garlic and cook 5 minutes, until onion is translucent.

Add the butternut squash, salt, turmeric and pepper, and 1 cup water from the cooking pasta. Simmer 10 minutes or until squash is very tender. If the liquid evaporates, add broth or more pasta cooking water.

Use an immersion blender to blend the butternut squash mixture until it’s completely smooth and creamy. If your sauce is too thick, add a little milk, broth or pasta water.

Add the chopped kale and the cooked pasta. Cook, stirring, until heated through. Serve with freshly-shredded Parmesan cheese.

Serves 3.

Easy Skillet Mac ‘n’ Cheese with cauliflower

This dinner takes only 15 to 20 minutes to make from scratch.


8 ounces tri-color rotini pasta

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon oil or butter

1/2 onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound cauliflower (fresh or frozen) chopped

2 cups cottage cheese

1/2 to 1 cup sharp cheese like sharp white cheddar or parmesan


Bring a large pot of water with salt to a boil.

When water is boiling, add the pasta and cook according to the directions on the package.

While noodles are cooking, heat butter or oil in skillet on medium-low. Add onion, sprinkle with salt, and cook 5 to 7 minutes, until translucent. Add the cauliflower florets and cook, stirring, another 5 minutes or until desired tenderness. Stir in cheeses and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, to melt. Drain noodles and stir in. Serve warm.

Option: substitute purple cauliflower, broccoli or kale for the white cauliflower.

Serves 3.

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.


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