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Classic Italian Pasta with a Seasonal Twist

from the American Institute for Cancer Research

This week’s recipe contains classic ingredients for a healthy and sophisticated flavor.  After all, few, if any, vegetables are as elegant as asparagus.  When paired with the earthy properties of pasta, these spears are a special treat.  Add to that the pleasing taste and texture of shredded chicken and you have a dish that is not only delectable, but also nutritionally balanced.

When prepared properly, asparagus have a unique flavor that is delicate and distinct.  Asparagus provide iron, folate and vitamins C and A. Their tender shoots should be prepared by snapping off the ends by hand.  Some cooks prefer to prepare only about half the stalk with the tips.  Many, however, like to use most of the stalk, snapping it off about an inch from the bottom.  No matter your preference, the key is not to overcook them. (If you have only experienced canned asparagus, try them fresh and it will completely change how you see this wonderful vegetable.)

Penne pasta is a specialty of the Campania Region in Southern Italy, which includes the cities of Naples, Capri and Sorrento.  The name means pen in Italian, as it is tube shaped with angled ends that are cut to resemble a quill or pen point.  This enables the sauce to find its way inside the pasta.

Like other pastas, whole and white-wheat versions are available, as well as gluten-free penne made from corn, rice or other ingredients.  Some manufacturers produce flavored versions, such as spinach or sundried tomatoes. Such variety enables you to find the pasta that pleases your palate.

The mustard adds a bit of zest to the recipe that is further enhanced by the tanginess of the lemon.  When buying lemons, choose those that are smallish, but heavy for their size.  Large lemons often have thick peels and actually contain less juice than smaller ones.  Fresh lemons are characterized by a glossy yellow color.

Topping it all off with parmesan cheese completes the layers of flavor. Parmesan is the iconic hard cheese that is often referred to as Parmigiano-Reggiano, reflecting the regions where it is produced.  Stores worldwide carry cheese made outside of Italy in the Parmesan style, and many are excellent.  To bear the true Parmigiano label, though, they must be Italian.

For convenience, many home cooks use the pre-grated variety. It is worth buying a block, however, and using freshly grated cheese to release its true concentrated flavor.  This will enable you to use it sparingly and still get the full measure of flavor.

Enjoy this collection of classic ingredients.  It may just become one of your favorites.

Penne Pasta with Shredded Chicken and Asparagus

  •  ½ lb. chicken cutlets, pounded lightly to an even thickness (about ½ inch)
  • 1 ½ tsp. Dijon mustard,divided
  • 1 cup penne
  • 1 lb. fresh asparagus (approximately 25 spears), ends removed, spears chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • Juice and pulp of 1 lemon
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
  1.             Preheat oven broiler.
  2.             Season chicken with 1 tsp. mustard, salt, and pepper.  Broil until cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes on each side.  Be careful not to overcook the chicken or it will become tough.
  3.             In the meantime, cook pasta al dente per package directions.  Drain and set aside.  In the same boiling water, add asparagus and boil for 4 minutes.  Drain and set aside with pasta.
  4.             In small mixing bowl, combine lemon juice and pulp, oil, remaining ½ tsp. mustard, thyme and salt and pepper.
  5.             Drizzle half the dressing on the pasta and asparagus so that it does not stick together.
  6.             When chicken is cool, shred into slivers with your fingers.  Add chicken to the pasta and toss with remaining dressing.
  7.             Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve warm.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving:  210 calories, 4 g total fat ( 1 g saturated fat), 24 g carbohydrate, 20 g protein, 4 g dietary fiber, 100 mg sodium.

For more information, please call the dietitians at Veterans Memorial Hospital at 568-3411.


The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. It has contributed more than $87 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR has published two landmark reports that interpret the accumulated research in the field and is committed to a process of continuous review. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. Its award-winning New American Plate program is presented in brochures, seminars and on its Web site, AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International.