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Chard and cheese pasta please
0424 FOOD Penne
Whole-wheat penne with spring greens and sausage is a healthier pasta option.

Whole-wheat penne with spring greens and sausage

If you have trouble finding Swiss chard, you can substitute spinach. Discard any tough spinach stems and use leaves as directed.

8 ounces whole-wheat penne
1 pound Swiss chard
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces chicken sausages, halved lengthwise, then sliced 1/2-inch-thick crosswise
1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt
15-ounce can (about 1 3/4 cups) chopped tomatoes, preferably fire roasted
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1 1/2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook for a few minutes less than the recommended time on the box.

Meanwhile, cut off and reserve Swiss chard stems. Chop Swiss chard leaves coarsely. Cut stems into 1/2-inch lengths.

In large skillet over medium-high, heat oil. Add sausages and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until lightly browned. Use slotted spoon to transfer sausages to bowl.

Return skillet to medium heat and add onion. Cook until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add Swiss chard stems to skillet, cover and cook for 3 minutes. Remove lid and add half Swiss chard greens. Stir and cook, stirring occasionally, until greens are slightly wilted. Add remaining greens, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until completely wilted. Add tomatoes, a hefty pinch of salt and red pepper flakes, if using.

When pasta is almost done but not quite al dente, drain it, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid. Add pasta and 3/4 cup of cooking liquid to skillet and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, adding more cooking liquid if necessary, until pasta is al dente and most of liquid has evaporated. Add sausages, then season with salt. Divide mixture among 4 shallow bowls and top each portion with some of the cheese.

No matter how unimpeachable whole-wheat pasta is in terms of nutritional cred, I’ve always found it off-putting.

Sure, it has more fiber and whole-grain nutrition. But it always struck me as rather spineless and dull. And as someone whose culinary credo is food can be scrumptious and healthy, I wasn’t about to eat whole-wheat pasta for its nutritional benefits alone.

Happily, several brands recently have developed very respectable lines of 100 percent whole-wheat pasta. If you haven’t lately, you might want to taste a few of them to decide which is your favorite.

Once you’ve settled on a winner, cook it the way I suggest in this recipe, which is to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. This produces a more flavorful dish than the more traditional method — cooking the sauce and pasta separately, then combining them only at the last minute. Plenty tasty, but the flavors never marry.

I learned a better way years ago when New York chef and restaurateur Scott Conant (his mom is of Italian descent) was my guest on “Cooking Live.” Transfer the pasta before it’s fully cooked to the sauce, then let it simmer in the sauce until it’s done. This way the pasta absorbs the flavor of the sauce and becomes that much tastier.

If you add a little of the pasta cooking liquid to the sauce, it will work to glue together the pasta and sauce in a most satisfyingly connubial fashion.

And let’s not forget our Swiss chard. A spring vegetable, this tangy Mediterranean member of the beet family comes in several colors, from bottle green to rainbow. And it’s edible from tip to toe, too, stems included. Just slice the stems and put them in the pan before the greens, because they take a little longer to soften.

By the way, if you’re wondering how the heck you’re going to persuade a full pound of greens to cook down within the confines of a single skillet, don’t worry; the water that clings to the greens after you wash them will help them to wilt. Just add them a handful at a time. Besides chard, this dish also would provide a happy home for spinach, beet greens or any other greens.

To finish, I pepped up the greens with a little chicken sausage, but just a little and just for flavor. Plenty of cultures use animal protein this way, rather than relying on a substantial slab of it to occupy the center of the plate. There’s a lesson there: it’s better for our health and for the environment.

This is pretty much a one-dish meal. Serve it with a nice little tossed salad on the side and a glass of vino, and savor your contentment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”