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Stuff it! Breaking Down Italian Meals into Basics.

It's going to get a bit experimental on this blog. Can you handle that?

The first thing I'm getting all crazy with is recipes. Italian recipes. You all know that John and I love our Italian food—we both have a long-standing love for Italian food, being raised in an Italian family. And as an athlete and a home chef/foodie/professional snacker, I'm always looking for foods that are not only packed with nutrition, but also with flavor. But I realize that Italian food doesn't always get a high ranking in healthfulness. 

I'm here to tell you this is a misconception. I'm not here to persuade you that Pennsylvania-sized portions of Veal Parmigiana and Lasagne Bolognese are a healthy meal option. I am here to redirect your thinking about Italian food, as real Italian food does not start or end with your Grandma's meatballs.

Italian food is much more than that. Or I should say "less." Authentic Italian cooking's goal is not to cram as much saturated fat into an oversized serving as possible. It's about using what's available, fresh and easily obtainable (local).

My goal is to break Italian cooking down to its basic elements, because that is where the health benefits hang out. As with much cooking, it's about ingredient choice and preparation that makes or breaks a dish – and your waistline.

So this is my first attempt: a revised stuffed shell recipe made with some autumn veggies. I promise it's easy, healthy and really, fantastically tasty.

Stuffed Shells with Butternut Squash, Spinach and Chicken Sausage

What You Need:

1 package shell-shaped pasta (something you can stuff!)
3 links chicken or turkey sausage
1 package frozen spinach (see I told you it was easy)
1/2 of a butternut squash, peeled and cubed 
1 8oz can crushed tomatoes
1 cup part skim ricotta cheese
2 cloves garlic
fresh basil - lots
1/2 cup white wine
olive oil
salt and pepper
hot pepper flakes 
Grated parmesan cheese 

Equipment: a baking dish - at least 12" in diameter or similar.

What To Do:

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a dash of salt and cook your pasta just a little underdone. You will be baking it in the oven, so it will fully cook then.

When you pasta is finished cooking, drain it and set it aside.

In the meantime, heat up your oven to 350 degrees.

In a skillet over medium heat, warm up a tablespoon of olive oil. Crush the two cloves of garlic and add them to the skillet. Add your sausage to the skillet season with salt and pepper and throw in a dash of hot pepper flakes Pour in the 1/2 cup white wine. Break up the sausage as it cooks, and allow it to cook fully - about 8 - 10 minutes, or until it is no longer pink on the inside. The wine will add flavor and keep it moist.

As your sausage is cooking, bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add your cubed squash to the pot and cook until a potato.

Defrost the spinach and place it in a bowl (please drain all the excess water - you definitely won't need it!). Mix in the cup of part skim ricotta right into the spinach so it makes a nice spinach/cheese paste. Season with salt and pepper.

Grab your baking dish and your pasta shells. Using a teaspoon, stuff the shells with a small dollop of the spinach and cheese mixture and place along the bottom of the dish in a layer.

Add some of the chicken sausage and the cooked butternut squash.

Using a large spoon, dollop the crushed tomatoes into the gaps that the other ingredients make in the dish.

This is fun, yes? YES! Repeat until you've used up all your ingredients, or you can't fit any more stuff into your baking dish.

Cover with foil, and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 35-40 minutes. When it's done, chop up some fresh basil, grate some Parm and sprinkle both of those magical ingredients on top. Serve piping hot!

People will love you. They won't even miss the meatballs.

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