Friday, January 6, 2012

The Mother of All Recipe Conversions: Spicy Pasta Bake with Sausage

This used to be one of our favorite "go to" recipes for winter comfort food. It was tasty, filling, and not much trouble to prepare. Unfortunately, it was also the one recipe we had been completely unable to alter enough to bring the sodium down to a reasonable level. The original recipe (from the Feb/March 2008 issue of Cook's Country) had five significant sources of sodium. Here they are in order, along with our lower sodium substitutes:

1. The sausage. Big, big problem, no matter what variety you choose. The recipe calls for one pound of chorizo, but we also used to make it with andouille or other smoked sausages. The amount of sodium in one pound of smoked sausage varies widely, but the range would be 3200mg on the low end to 5500mg on the high side. This was the toughest ingredient to substitute. We cut the sodium by a factor of 10-15 (yes!) by making our own andouille sausage using a recipe found in Dick Logue's 500 Low Sodium Recipes cookbook. This homemade version contains just 330mg of sodium from the pork meat itself. If you aren't feeling ambitious enough to grind your own sausage (although it is not difficult), you could also substitute Trader Joe's chicken Italian sausage, which only has 787mg/pound.

2. The cheese. We used to grate 8 oz of pepper jack cheese to add to this dish, which contributes 1440mg of sodium. I have not been able to find a lower sodium version of this type of cheese, so I cut the amount of pepper jack to 4 ounces and substituted 4 ounces of grated swiss to cut the cheese contribution down to an even 1000mg of sodium while keeping the flavor and texture the same. Swiss is the lowest sodium variety of hard cheese.

3. Low-sodium chicken broth. Yep, even the "low sodium" variety has 450mg/cup. This is better than the regular kind, which has about 760mg/cup, but since we need 3 cups this adds 1350mg to the pot. Fortunately you can easily find organic low-sodium chicken broth that has only 80mg/cup, bringing this ingredient's share down to 240mg.  If you really wanted to get stingy, Wyler's makes an instant chicken flavor broth that doesn't have any sodium (and probably doesn't have any real chicken either, but still tastes pretty good in recipes). Sometimes we use it half and half with real broth.

4. Next up is the 1/2 teaspoon of salt. That adds 1180mg to the total. We ended up reducing the sodium level enough with our other substitutions that we were able to leave this in for flavor, but you could also substitute KCl salt, which contains zero sodium. I added about 1/4 teaspoon of KCl to bump up the salty flavor.

5. The last problem child is the 10 oz can of Ro-Tel tomatoes, which contains 1040mg of sodium and has no low sodium alternative from the same manufacturer. We got around this by using a 14.5 oz can of Eden Organic Diced Tomatoes "Just Roma Tomatoes" that we purchased at Whole Foods and adding hot peppers into the recipe as a separate item. It contains only 20mg of sodium. If you can't find this product, most grocery stores carry no-salt-added diced tomatoes that contain 175mg for the whole can.

So... how did we do? The original recipe states that it serves 4, although in practice we usually get 6 meals from it so I will divide everything into 6 portions. The dish as made in the past contains anywhere from 8340mg to 10640mg of sodium depending on what sausage is used, which works out to 1390mg - 1773mg per serving. Way too high! Our version as cooked last night contained 2820mg in the pot, which is 470mg per serving. (If you use the Trader Joes's chicken sausage and regular no salt added diced tomatoes this would become 572mg per serving, which is still quite respectable.) I seasoned my plate with Mrs. Dash Table Blend and about a tablespoon of Hillside Orchard Farms Habanero hot sauce (add 43mg to my serving for that).

Bottom line - this conversion was very challenging, but I would call it a success. The texture and taste were nearly identical to the original recipe, although it definitely tastes less salty and needs more of the other seasonings to compensate.


1 lb homemade "andouille" sausage (Logue, page 412)*
1 T vegetable oil
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced fine
3 habanero peppers, seeded and diced fine (optional, but we like it extra spicy)
1 onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups organic low sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 14.5 oz can no salt added diced tomatoes
12 oz penne pasta
4 oz swiss cheese, shredded
4 oz pepper jack cheese, shredded
4 scallions, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp salt - optional
1/4 tsp potassium chloride ("NoSalt" or other brand) - optional
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat broiler. In a large dutch oven, cook sausage in batches until browned. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and set aside. Add the vegetable oil to the pan, then cook the onion and hot peppers until they begin to brown. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, then add the sausage back to the pan.

Pour in broth, cream, tomatoes and pasta and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Add salt, KCl, and black pepper to taste. Cover and simmer until pasta is done, stirring often. This should take about 15 minutes.

Turn off heat and stir in the swiss cheese. Sprinkle the pepper jack cheese on top, then place pot under broiler for a few minutes until the cheese is spotty brown. Place into serving bowls and top with a handful of scallions.

*A worthy substitute is Trader Joe's chicken Italian sausage, if you do not wish to make your own andouille flavored sausage from scratch. If you decide to make the sausage yourself, we followed the Logue recipe for the most part, but we prefer to grind our own pork in a food processor rather than purchasing ground pork because you can control the fat content by selecting an appropriate cut of meat - Boston butt works well, but you can use other cuts. Pork tenderloin is not recommended because it is too lean.

**RECIPE UPDATED 5/3/12 because it just isn't the same without real Andouille sausage. We found a way to make it work. Hooray! Changes are detailed here: Cheesy Pasta Bake, Revisited.


  1. One caveat: this was not nearly as good as a leftover as the original recipe (it used to taste even better the next day), so we have some retooling ahead. Choices include using store bought smoked sausage in a smaller quantity than one pound, or getting ourselves a smoker so we can make decent smoked sausage at home and control the salt content.

  2. We retooled this recipe with real Andouille sausage and the new version tastes and behaves like the previous salty version. Sodium was controlled by limiting the quantity of sausage.

    Cheesy Pasta Bake, Revisited