Pasta Fresca – 15 minute fresh and healthy pasta recipe

Pasta Fresca is a vegetable-filled pasta dish that takes less than 15 minutes to make. This easy dinner recipe is fresh, light and filling!

Top view of pasta fresca in a pan with a spoon

Last month a couple of friends and I went out for dinner and drinks followed by a comedy show starring the one and only Trey Kennedy. He was so funny! I didn’t know if a sketch-comedy-style guy would make a good stand-up comedian, but he did it. You also have to appreciate when a PG-themed comedian can get an entire audience rolling without uttering a single swear word.

That’s a talent I don’t have.

Anyway, 10/10 + two thumbs up + highly recommend!

A friend of mine and I were talking about the show the next day and she said, “…it felt so good to LAUGH” and that hit me right in the heart. It felt so good to laugh! When was the last time you laughed for an hour straight? Heck, even 5 minutes? May we all have more laughter moments in our lives.

Today I’m sharing a feel-good moment in the form of a veggie-packed pasta dinner recipe that not only delivers a fresh taste, but also cooks in the time it takes to cook a box of penne pasta.

10/10 + two thumbs up + would highly recommend the recipe Pasta Fresca!

Pasta fresca ingredients in a pan

Copy Cat Noodles & Company Pasta Fresca

In the early days of Ben and my marriage, we ate at Noodles & Company every week. I would get Japanese pan noodles and he would get pasta fresca. No deviation. je. Wouldn’t even consider it. Long gone are our gluten-filled takeout pasta days, so I decided to recreate Ben’s favorite dish right here at home—gluten-free this time.

Pasta Fresca is gluten-free penne pasta tossed with a medley of fresh veggies like red onions, baby spinach, and tomatoes, tons of fresh garlic, a shortened balsamic sauce, and your choice of cheese topper.

Did I mention it cooks in the time it takes to cook a box of pasta? This simple, vegetarian pasta recipe is as quick and easy as it is healthy and delicious.

Plate of pasta fresca with a fork

ingredients needed

  • Penne: I recommend Jovial gluten-free brown rice penne. Feel free to use pasta of your choice – rotini, ziti, or rigatoni would be great shapes to use.
  • Red onion: sliced ​​red onion adds color and flavor.
  • Garlic: there are 6 – yes, six! – fresh garlic cloves in this pasta recipe for tons of garlic flavor. Feel free to call back if you’re a medium on the garlic-loving scale.
  • Tomatoes: Chopped vine tomatoes or Roma tomatoes help make a light pasta sauce. Halved cherry tomatoes would be great when they’re in season.
  • baby spinach: I add a whole 5 ounce clamshell of fresh spinach to this dish pump up the vegetables. Roughly chop the spinach before frying if the leaves are large.
  • Balsamic Vinaigrette: Store-bought balsamic vinaigrette—salad dressing, y’all—doubles as an easy, flavorful sauce for the pasta. I will share my favorite brand below.
  • Parmesan or Feta Cheese: Noodles & Company offers you a choice of grated parmesan cheese or crumbled feta cheese to garnish your pasta fresca. I prefer feta while Ben goes for parmesan. You could use a plant-based cheese to make this dish vegan.

How to add (more) protein

As written, the recipe for Pasta Fresca is vegetarian and can be made vegan if you use a plant-based cheese. However, pasta made with brown rice, spinach, and tomatoes are great sources of plant-based protein! However, if you want to stretch the dish a bit, here are some protein options to add to the recipe:

  1. Chicken: Before sautéing the red onions, season 1 pound diced chicken breasts with Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt and pepper, then sauté in extra virgin olive oil until cooked through. Pour into a bowl and then set aside. In step 3, add to the pasta saucepan.
  2. Shrimp: Sear 1 pound shrimp or, before sautéing the red onions, dice 1 pound jumbo shrimp into bite-sized pieces, season and sear like the chicken breast option above.
  3. Salmon: a roast or air-fried salmon fillet would be divinely served alongside a scoop of pasta fresca. Simply season with salt, pepper and garlic powder.
  4. Italian sausage: Before sautéing the red onions, brown 3/4 lb of hot or sweet Italian sausage, drain, set aside and add to the pot at the end.
  5. beans: I don’t usually like a double carb source in one meal (e.g. pasta + beans), but unless you have the same, very specific recipe, add a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas or large northern beans to the pot with the spinach mixture finish heating.
  6. High Protein Noodles: Use bean or lentil based pastas like Banza or Tolerant which pack a TON of protein!
  7. More vegetables! Mushrooms, asparagus, peas, and/or chopped zucchini are all great additions to this pasta dish to pump up the plant-based protein.

All right, ready to cook?!

Copycat Pasta & Company Pasta Fresca on a plate

How to make Pasta Fresca

Step 1: Cook pasta

Start by adding a 12 ounce box gluten free penne pasta, or your favorite pasta shape, in a large saucepan of boiling salted water, then cook al dente according to package directions. Then drain and set aside. Leave out the pasta cooking pot as we will be using it to combine all the ingredients at the end.

brown rice noodles on a countertop

Step 2: Cook the vegetables

When the noodles are half cooked, heat them up Extra virgin olive oil in a 12″+ large skillet over heat that is a touch over medium. Add to sliced ​​red onion, season with Salt and pepperthen sauté until onions are crisp and tender, 3-4 minutes.

Fry the sliced ​​red onions in a pan

Next, add a lot of ground beef fresh garlic then sauté until garlic begins to turn light brown, 1-2 minutes, being very careful not to burn.

Sweat onions and garlic in a pan

Put the mince in the pan fresh tomatoes then fry until just beginning to soften, 1-2 minutes. Use the spatula to loosen any brown pieces from the bottom of the pan with the tomato juice.

Fry chopped tomatoes in a pan

Add last baby spinach, coarsely chopped if leaves are large, then sauté until spinach begins to wilt, 1-2 minutes. I like to switch to pliers at this point to mess things up.

Fry baby spinach in a pan

You can see the spinach is really cooking down!

If the pasta isn’t done cooking, remove the pan from the heat to keep the spinach from overcooking.

Fry the pasta fresca ingredients in a pan

Step 3: Mix pasta and vegetables with vinaigrette

Return the cooked pasta to the pasta saucepan with the spinach mixture plus balsamic vinaigrette, This creates a light, flavorful sauce for the pasta. I love Ken’s Simple Vinaigrette Balsamic Vinegar for the job!

Turn the heat down to low and stir to combine, reheat and wilt the spinach completely.

Hand holding bottle of balsamic vinaigrette

Step 4: Sprinkle with cheese

Pour the pasta fresca into bowls and fill them with it crumbled feta or grated parmesan cheese. I like feta because it makes for a light and creamy sauce, but there’s something undeniably delicious about a simple, nutty sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

Top view of pasta fresca in a pan with a spoon

That’s all she wrote – telling you this simple pasta dish is quick and easy!

How to store and warm up

If you have leftovers, place them in an airtight container with a lid and refrigerate. Reheat in the microwave. I don’t usually like reheated gluten-free pasta, but the veggies and balsamic vinaigrette keep the pasta from becoming too hard in the fridge/falling apart when reheated.

However you serve it, I hope you love this quick and easy feel-good gluten free pasta fresca recipe – enjoy!

Plate of pasta fresca with a fork

More easy and simple pasta recipes


Pasta Fresca is a vegetable-filled pasta dish that takes less than 15 minutes to make. This easy dinner recipe is fresh, light and filling!


  • 12 ounces gluten-free penne pasta (jovially recommended)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small or 1/2 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 garlic cloves, pressed or chopped
  • 1 pound vine-ripened (2-3) or Roma tomatoes (3-4), seeded and then chopped
  • 5 ounces baby spinach, roughly chopped if leaves are large
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette (NOT balsamic vinegar, see notes)
  • grated parmesan cheese or crumbled feta cheese


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then season generously with salt and add the penne. Cook until al dente, then drain the pasta and set aside. Keep the saucepan outside as you will end up using it again.
  2. When the pasta is half cooked, heat extra virgin olive oil in a large 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add red onions, season with salt and pepper and sauté until crisp-tender, 3-4 minutes Add garlic and sauté until very fragrant and light-colored, 1-2 minutes is golden brown, being careful not to burn it off the bottom of the pan. Add baby spinach and sauté until wilted, 1 minute – I like to switch to tongs to mix all the veggies. If the pasta is still cooking at this point, remove the pan from the heat. Don’t overcook the spinach.
  3. Return the pasta saucepan to low heat, add the balsamic vinaigrette, drained pasta, and spinach mixture, then stir until the dish is heated through and the spinach is tender. Pour into bowls and sprinkle with parmesan or feta.


  • Use your favorite balsamic vinaigrette for this recipe. I like Ken’s Simply Balsamic Vinaigrette.
  • Please read the post copy for protein options, how to cook them and when to add them to the recipe.

This recipe is courtesy of Iowa Girl Eats,

Photo collage of Pasta Fresca recipe

Photos by Ashley McLaughlin

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