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Perfect partner for pasta

Pasta is a perfect partner for fresh, bright lemon, tender spinach leaves and succulent sautéed shrimp. Photo by Sue Doeden

It doesn't seem that long ago when several people I know were strictly adhering to a no-carb diet.

As they would politely pass on the bread, I would be eyeing the big crusty roll in the basket, my knife ready to slather it with butter.

When they were ordering an entrée vegetable salad with olive oil and vinegar on the side, please, I was choosing a plate of pasta with a small green salad on the side, thank you very much.

I admired their willpower. I knew, though, that these carb-less people could not possibly possess the same passion as I did for crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside warm bread and al dente pasta. No, a life without carbs was not for me. My willpower is much better spent on practicing balance and moderation in my daily dining.

At the time, though, my dieting friends were not the only ones making their kitchens no-carb zones. The sales of pasta and bread slowly declined. Pasta was a bit out of fashion. I continued to eat the starchy stuff without a bit of guilt.

Wander into the pasta aisle at the grocery store today and you'll find at least a few home cooks poking around. With the cost of food continuing to rise, consumers are using pasta as one way to stretch their food dollars. Pasta can be stirred into casseroles, tossed into salads and topped with sauce. It pairs well with vegetables, fish, meat and poultry and tomato sauce.

Traditional pasta, made with semolina, is a healthful contribution to a well-balanced diet. For those who want more health benefits from their pasta, there are now choices with added fiber, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients. Whole wheat pastas also are available.

I've discovered pasta is a perfect partner for fresh, bright lemon, tender spinach leaves and succulent sautéed shrimp. I peruse the pasta aisle to check out all the new shapes. For Lemon Pasta with Spinach and Shrimp, I use pasta that is curled into little ruffled flowers. They hold the light lemony sauce in their petals as they give the dish a springtime theme.

In just a couple of minutes, you can sauté some shrimp. While the pasta is cooking, sauté some onions and simmer a bit of broth. Toss everything together with fresh baby spinach leaves and the meal is ready to take to the table.

There's just no end to the delicious ways to enjoy pasta. I'd love to serve Lemon Pasta with Spinach and Shrimp to my friends, but now they're on the anti-bloat phase of the Flat-Belly Diet. Too bad.

Lemon Pasta with Spinach and Shrimp

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 ounces uncooked pasta, such as flowers, fusilli or trumpets

1 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup vegetable or chicken broth

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1/3 cup ricotta cheese

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces fresh baby spinach leaves

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Melt butter in large skillet. Add olive oil and heat until mixture is very hot. Add shrimp and salt and sauté until shrimp turn pink. It will take just a couple of minutes. Remove shrimp from pan and set aside.

Cook pasta in well-salted water until al dente.

While pasta is cooking, add chopped onion to butter and olive oil mixture and cook over medium heat until onion is very soft. Add broth to pan, along with lemon juice and zest. Cook and stir until mixture reduces slightly and takes on a thicker consistency. Add ricotta cheese and black pepper and stir until smooth. Pull the al dente pasta out of the boiling water with a strainer. Drop it right into the sauce. The little bit of starchy water that goes in with the pasta will help thicken the sauce. Stir the shrimp and spinach into the sauce. The spinach will wilt as it heats up. When the pasta mixture is well combined and heated through, stir in the Parmesan. Season with more salt and pepper if necessary. Makes 4 entrée servings.

Tips from the cook

--I use 26-30 count shrimp for this dish. This means it is a size that takes 26 to 30 of them to equal a pound. I find it is just the right size for pairing with pasta.

--Use as much or as little spinach in this dish as you like. Sometimes I add just a couple of big handfuls. Sometimes I add a whole 10-ounce bag. Although most bagged spinach is prewashed, I still rinse it in a bowl of cool water and whirl it in my spinner to dry.

--Pasta is referred to as al dente when there is a slight resistance against your teeth. Not too mushy, not to crunchy, it will hold its shape and will be just slightly chewy.