Updated on 07.17.09

How Low Can You Go? Lemony Fettuccine with Asparagus

Trent Hamm

In April and May, National Public Radio featured a series on inexpensive gourmet dishes entitled “How Low Can You Go?” Although many of the dishes looked quite tasty, most of the dishes weren’t actually all that inexpensive, often narrowly getting below $10 to feed a family of four, and many involved arduous cooking processes. I decided to try out some of these recipes throughout the summer to see how I could take the recipes and reduce them down to a simple and very inexpensive form.

Lemony fettuccine

Sharon Guenther submitted this very simple and tasty fettuccine recipe to the “How Low Can You Go” contest. We decided to prepare it on a warm summer evening and serve a chilled white wine with it. Here’s the recipe she submitted:

1 lb. of good Fettucini
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
1 clove garlic, smashed and minced
1/4 c. scallions, including tops, sliced crosswise
1/4 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 lb. fresh asparagus
1/4 chopped, fresh Italian parsley

Set a pot of water to boil for the pasta. Meanwhile, trim the tough ends of asparagus and place, single-layer, in a lightly oiled roasting pan. Lightly spray or brush olive oil on asparagus as well. Roast at 400 degree, 15 minutes or until it becomes aromatic but not mushy.

In a serving bowl, place lemon juice and zest, garlic, scallions, parsley and EVOO. Whisk together gently.Add salt and lots of fresh ground black pepper.

By this time, the water should be boiling so cook the fettucini until it is al dente.

When asparagus is done, cut it all crosswise, leaving the tops intact.

Drain pasta and add to ingredients in serving bowl. Toss to coat the pasta. Add asparagus and top with a generous amount of grated parmesan.

For the scallions, we just used fresh green onions – a simple and easy to grow substitute. We had the rest of the ingredients on hand except for the fettuccine (and I could have made that with some more time), the lemons, and the asparagus. Our total bill wound up being very close to $7 for the meal.

Here’s what we did. First, the ingredients:

Ingredients for fettuccine

You’ll notice two ingredients are missing right from the title: the fettuccine and the asparagus. These were already on their way to being cooked. The fettuccine was in a pan of water soaking (I often do the trick of getting the water to boiling, adding the pasta, then turning off the heat and letting it soak for 20-25 minutes in cooling water, as it saves a ton of energy) and the asparagus was freshly in the oven. I just took the asparagus stalks, chipped off the bottom of each, spread them out on a cookie sheet that had just a bit of canola oil rubbed all over the surface, and stuck the sheet in the oven. Here’s the asparagus, about to go in:

Asparagus about to be baked

Those of you with a sharp eye will notice an unusual “ingredient” in the ingredient pic – a Ped Egg. Yes, that bastion of infomercials is actually really useful – but not on our feet.

We wound up with a PedEgg somewhere along the line – I honestly couldn’t tell you when. It was likely a gift from someone for some reason, because I can’t conceive of a reason why we would buy one.

So why is a PedEgg in this picture? It’s a great zester. All you have to do is rub it around lightly on the surface of a lemon or an orange or a lime – whatever you’re trying to get zest from – and it neatly collects inside the egg. In fact, here’s the zest of two lemons, added to some of the other chopped ingredients:

Lemon zest

Perfect zest – and very easy! If you’re given a PedEgg at some point and have no idea what to do with it – or see a new one for just a dollar or two someday – pick it up. It’s the easiest zester I’ve ever tried.

Anyway, that bowl contains all of the other ingredients in the recipe. When the asparagus and fettuccine were finished, I chopped the asparagus up into smaller pieces, put the fettuccine and asparagus into this bowl, and mixed them:

Mixing fettuccine with asparagus

(I look kind of bushed in that picture because it had been a very long day of waking up way too early and writing and jogging and chasing children.)

Anyway, after mixing it all up thoroughly, we transferred it to our treasured handmade pasta bowl, simply because it looks so nice in the middle of our table:

Fettuccine in our pasta bowl

And here’s what our plates looked like. We served the pasta with applesauce and Virgin Chardonnay:

Lemony fettuccine

It was a big hit – everyone liked it. There was enough left over for my wife and I each to enjoy it for lunch the next day, meaning we got six meals out of it for $8 of ingredients – a cost per meal of about $1.33.

Changes I Would Make to Save Cost and Time
I would not make any changes to the recipe itself. However, with some thoughtful ordering, you can go from nothing at all to a finished meal on the table in about twenty minutes. Here’s how to do it.

First, get a pot of water on to boil before you do anything else. Then pre-heat the oven for the asparagus.

While the oven is preheating, cut the asparagus up and put it on the cookie sheet. We used just a bit of canola oil rubbed on the sheet to keep the asparagus from sticking. When the oven’s ready, pop in the asparagus for fifteen minutes.

When the water is boiling, toss in the fettuccine, then cut the heat immediately. Let the fettuccine rest in the water for twenty or twenty five minutes, tasting it near the end to see if it’s done yet. If the asparagus is mostly done by the time the water gets to boiling, you can also just boil the pasta to save some time, but ideally you want to have the asparagus finish 5 to 10 minutes before the pasta so you can cut up the asparagus and add it to the other ingredients.

While the asparagus and pasta are cooking, prep the other ingredients. Zest the lemon, peel it, and squeeze out the juice. Chop the scallions. Add the olive oil. Add the garlic. Get those ingredients all ready.

When the asparagus finishes, get it out and cut it into little pieces. Add it to the other ingredients and mix.

When the pasta finishes, drain it, then add it to the bowl and mix it thoroughly, then serve it immediately.

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  1. danieli says:

    Trent! I’m not a frequent commenter, but I just needed to give you the kudos for your weight loss, it’s REALLY noticeable by the pictures! Congratulations!

  2. jreed says:

    The fork goes on the left.

  3. Ann says:

    This sounds YUMMY!! Definitely one we will try.

  4. mstree says:

    looks yummy too
    I think I would have stir fried the asparagus rather than firing up the oven…our oven takes forever to heat up.
    add a small fillet of salmon and a salad and it’s a meal for company :)

    I have a similar recipe that uses peas when the asparagus is too expensive.

  5. Mighty says:

    This sounds delicious. I’m going to try it and pair it with a small salad or something colorful.

    Incidentally–you look great. Congrats and kudos on all of your weight loss. It’s very inspiring to watch someone methodically do the right thing–and get to see the results unfold in a timely manner.

  6. Nick says:

    I’m almost 100% certain that green onions and scallions are the exact same thing.

    Chives are different, but scallions and green onions are the same plant.

    Apple sauce seems like an odd side dish. I think I might prefer a salad or something. Good lookin’ pasta though.

  7. anne says:

    i was kind of hoping to see a horse in the photo of ingredients. i really was!

  8. Breanne says:

    Trent, you say that if you had more time, you could have made your own fettucine. I’ve actually found it takes *less* time to make your own fresh pasta because it cooks so fast! The only catch is the initial cost of $20 for a pasta roller if you don’t have one already (you can roll it by hand, but it may not be faster in that case).

    Start the water boiling, then make your pasta.

    1 egg per person, 300g of flour per person. Mix (use a food processor or mixer if you’ve got one, otherwise you’ll have to mix it by hand, and that can take a bit longer — BUT you can make the dough up to 2-3 days before if you have to and just keep it in the fridge. We usually make a double batch and have it twice during the week).

    Use the pasta roller to roll and cut your pasta into whatever shape you want. By the time you’re done this, your water will be almost boiling.

    Whip your sauce together and throw your noodles in the water. In 3 minutes, your sauce and noodles will both be cooked.

    Total time: we’ve got our basic pastas — tomato or cream sauce based — down to a sub-10 minute process, most of which is waiting for water to boil. Even with the addition of something like asparagus, it won’t add anything to your prep time.

    Just be careful… we made fresh pasta once “just to try it.” It tasted so good, we couldn’t go back!

  9. Kristin says:

    “The fettuccine was in a pan of water soaking (I often do the trick of getting the water to boiling, adding the pasta, then turning off the heat and letting it soak for 20-25 minutes in cooling water, as it saves a ton of energy)”

    Honestly, are you saving $.05 worth of energy? It takes 10 minutes tops to boil pasta!

  10. Lizzy says:

    These recipes are becoming my favorite part of your site! I tried the dal you posted a little while ago and it came out great (though we barely had a pan large enough even for the reduced recipe you listed). Also, one of my roommates is vegan, and I really appreciate that you’ve provided some non-dairy recipes so we can have dinner together.

  11. teri says:

    when tomatoes come in (only another week or two here in the upper midwest), adding halved cherry tomatoes to this would be great, for both color and taste. You could even roast them with the asparagus.
    I would use Olive Oil–it’s better tasting and better for you–and the tiniest sprinkle of salt and pepper to roast the asparagus with. It really brings out the flavor.

    the trouble is: asparagus and tomatoes are never in season at the same time, so one or the other always tastes a little sub-par….(sigh) They’re so good together.

  12. neil says:

    I’m not a big man, by any standards but this looks tiny! I have only really browsed the images but this looks like a tiny portion of food!

  13. Ivy says:

    During the time of year when asparagus is not readily available, this would also be great with fresh broccoli florets.

  14. Mitch K. says:


    “The fork goes on the left.”

    Not if I’m right handed it doesn’t.

    Trent, love these recipes especially as I’m just starting to cook. I think I’ll try your breakfast burritos (but for dinner) soon. Have you done a cheap and easy meal with chicken yet?

  15. Julie says:

    Even easier, and better in the hot summer, just pop the asparagus into the boiling salted pasta water for a few minutes at the end of the pasta cooking time. Saves heating up the oven and a dirty cookie sheet!

  16. Andrew Weinberg says:

    Personally, without some form of protein, I would only feel comfortable with this dish as a side dish. However, it sounds like adding chicken breast (or tofu, for the vegetarians in the crowd) would make this an excellent meal indeed. It would probably add considerably to the cost, but I would not feel like this meal was well rounded without a significant source of protein in it.

  17. Johanna says:

    @Andrew Weinberg: Pasta has protein in it. And you don’t actually need as much protein as most meat-eating Americans think they do. If you ate nothing but pasta and asparagus, you’d come up a little bit short, protein-wise, but not much. If you eat other protein-rich foods at other meals, you’ll be fine with this one.

    But say you do decide to eat this pasta dish alongside some other protein-rich dish at the same meal. Why does that make the protein-rich dish the “main” dish and the pasta the “side” dish? Why can’t you call the pasta the main dish and the protein-rich dish the side? Or why can’t they just be two dishes you happen to eat at the same time?

  18. Ben says:

    Great recipe. One way I save time, money and effort when cooking pasta is to put a metal collander on top of the pot with water and add vegetables. Put the lid on the collander and the steam cooks the vegetables and all the good water soluble vitamins fall in to the pasta anyway.

  19. Sandy says:

    When our family has a pasta meal like this, I take a can of drained garbanzo beans, w/ oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. The girls usually will also have milk to drink. We have cottage cheese at many meals for a side, as well.

  20. Nick says:

    You can save even more energy (& therefore cost) if you boil the water in a kettle instead of the pan.

  21. Brigid says:

    We make a very similar dish to this, but we use penne as the pasta and saute the asparagus with the onions rather than roasting it.

    I always make sure to have a high-protein breakfast and lunch, but I think it’s less critical at dinner. That said, we do usually grate some parmesan over the top so we don’t fall asleep before doing the dishes.

  22. Sabine says:

    #1 jreed
    The fork doesn’t go on the left if you don’t use a knive

  23. Michele says:

    Johanna is right, pasta has a pretty good amount of protein in it on its own, as do many non-meat, non-dairy food sources. Asparagus has protein in it to, though only about half as much as the pasta.

    The meal has the about same amount of protein as an average scoop of whey protein powder, which is a pretty darn good amount.

  24. Cheers, Johanna! I think it’s funny Andrew recommended “tofu” for the vegetarians out there. I do agree with him that this meal needs something a bit more nutritious, but it certainly ain’t meat or tofu. More vegetables, please! I’m not sure I’d be full after eating that plate.

    Also, Trent, would you talk a bit about using applesauce as a side dish for this meal?

  25. lurker carl says:

    I can’t find decent asparagus except in the spring. broccoli sounds like a good substitute. I would also use a whole grain pasta instead of the “enriched” stuff, otherwise this sounds like a nice summer meal.

    I hope your kids enjoyed the Virgin Chardonnay, sleepy time!

  26. Paul Maurice Martin says:

    Looks great, and nice tips for speeding it up…

  27. Phil says:

    Applesauce with pasta? Heathen!

  28. Kim says:

    Your kidding about the Pedegg, right? Those things are wonderful!

  29. Liane says:

    Trent, this is an awesome recipe and I love the use of the Ped Egg. I’ll have to pick one up just for this, as I have a regular zester but it’s messy.

    Thank you and keep the terrific and timely posts coming!!

    More horses in the pictures please (I have about 200 of those things from when I was a kid still in my garage!)!

  30. deb says:

    It looks and sounds like a delicious meal to me, but if I served that to my family (we’re a family of 4) they’d wonder where the rest of the meal is, sorry. I have a husband and 2 teenage boys that are stick thin with fast metabolisms – they eat like horses. That meal would last then about 30 minutes before they’d be scrounging the kitchen for more food.

  31. anne says:

    johana and michele-

    you’re so right about it already having protein

    when people don’t believe me about how much protein rich food vegetarians need, i’ll usually mention that cows don’t eat meat, but they get protein somehow, don’t they?

    i think as long as you’re eating “food” and not big bowls of refined sugar, you’re getting some protein. you really are.

  32. Johanna says:

    The suggestion of substituting broccoli for the asparagus (good idea when asparagus is out of season) reminds me of a similar dish I make sometimes: add a few chopped kalamata olives (or other good black olives), and substitute some balsamic vinegar for part of the lemon juice.

  33. Johanna says:

    And if you want to try it that way, I recommend *not* adding any Parmesan, since you’ve got a lot of strong flavors in there already.

  34. Jules says:

    Mmmm…I don’t think the boyfriend will like lemon with his pasta, though. And I have yet to get him accustomed to the (heretical) idea that vegetables don’t have to be boiled :-)

    We have a Microplaner zest-grater that works like a dream. It might be a bit silly to buy a 20 euro kitchen implement for just grating zest (and cheese), but it really is money well-spent if you make a lot of dishes that require lemon.

  35. Amanda says:

    First, you look great; kudos on the weight loss.
    On the cooking front, scallions & green onions are the same thing…I would’ve chosen shallots for this dish over scallions.
    My other tips… lightly peel the bottom of the asparagus stalks after you have taken off the ends… this makes them absolutely delectables. It’s very quick and easy to do with an OXO peeler, or any vegetable peeler. Also, you may think of adding just a tad bit of the pasta water when you’re done with any pasta dish like this…the flavor enhancement is remarkable. Cheers : )

  36. SoCalGal says:

    I look forward to the Saturday posts. Trent, you look great, but where is the horse? Your son has quite the eye for set design.

  37. Paul says:

    Nice fireplace and wood floors, Trent!

  38. Sarah R says:

    I love this series, especially since so many of the recipes are vegetarian-friendly. I’ve recently stumbled up on the idea of putting citrus into pasta dishes and am loving it- I’ll have to try this one.

    One comment on some of your previous “how low can you go” posts, though. You’ve talked about using dried herbs instead of fresh. It can be a money-saver, but I just don’t think most dried herbs give the punch that fresh herbs do. One way to get past the cost is to do container gardening of herbs. I can grow basil really cheaply in pots from late April through early October, for instance, and fresh, it really adds something. Dill and oregano grow easily in your yard and will re-seed and come back every year, so eventually, there’s no cost at all.

  39. lu3 says:

    Wonderful recipe. I love asparagus with pasta.

    Fashion suggestion: Buy a shirt one size smaller that actually fits you well through the shoulders, and you will look much less droopy and tired. It’s amazing what a good fit in clothing can do for the appearance you project.

  40. Kathy says:

    I LOL’d at the Ped-Egg on your counter. I thought it was cute. :)

  41. Michelle says:

    Since you cook (and maybe bake) a lot, an alternative to oiling the baking sheet is a Silpat-type silicone liner. It’s good for hundreds of uses so it reduces waste. It’s superfast to just throw on a baking sheet rather than getting the oil out and dirtying a brush or wasting a paper towel. I use it in place of oil (for roasting), parchment paper (baking), or a floured/corn mealed surface (bread baking). Depending on what you’re making, you’ll also benefit from a true dry roast which can mean some yummy caramelization (and lower fat) with an easy, fast clean up. Most times I don’t even have to wash the baking sheet, just the liner.

    Silpat is the original French brand and is a bit spendy, but there are a lot of brands now and you can often find them on sale. I’m still using my first Silpat I bought back before there were other brands (many years ago) and I bake a lot, so they last a *long* time. It saves me prep time, clean up time, and saves oil, parchment paper, and flour/corn meal.

  42. brooke says:

    wow, i bet you didn’t expect to get etiquette and fashion advice when you posted a recipe! I have Emily Post’s Etiquette on the shelf, I’ll have to see what she says about the fork on the right when there is no knife. I hadn’t heard that before! But either way, I like these recipe posts too!

  43. lu3 says:

    This is what we taught our children about the placement of silverware on the table:

    The silverware had a fight. The knife and the spoon were RIGHT, so the fork LEFT.

    Also: knife, spoon, and right all have five letters; fork and left have four.

  44. Sharon says:

    Blegh! The idea of a ped egg as a zester is so revolting…and yet…so practical! (Except that I don’t have one.) I have a oxo zester and am always annoyed at how the zest goes everywhere; I feel like I waste half as much as I use.

    Incidentally, add lemon zest to salads for a great summer salad.

    And BTW, as a vegetarian, I agree with other posters who observe that foods other than meat and dairy contain protein. Also, you don’t need every single meal to be perfectly balanced, as long as you eat a varied diet throughout the day and week that doesn’t consist of junk food.

  45. Pat says:

    I love your recipes and I love reading all the comments.

  46. Lisa says:

    Rats, I was given a Pedegg and decided it was just more clutter so gave it away to a local thrift store, and NOW you tell me what a great zester it is! Guess I’ll have to return to the thrift store tomorrow and see if I can buy it back…

    Um – why applesauce? Does not seem like a natural match, at least, not to someone like me with an Italian last name. Just curious.

  47. Jim says:


    I’m enjoying the recipes and the accompanying pix.

    A nice respite from the pretty serious financial management stuff.

    The pictures really tell the story- kudos on the pedegg trick- that’s really clever!

  48. georgia says:

    The recipe sounds delicious…until I saw “canola oil”.
    Canola oil is nothing more than cheap chemicals that damages the internal organs.
    Virgin olive oil is much safer .

  49. Bryce says:

    Turning the heat off and letting the pasta soak saves a TON of energy? When I’m not running the furnace, my gas bill is just for the water heater and gas stove/oven. I really burn the gas through the stove burners (letting pans get hot, not turning it off while I’ve got a pan off for a minute, or not turning it off immediately). The months I don’t run the furnace I have a gas bill under $20. I don’t see how keeping the burner on for seven minutes while it boils through uses very much energy at all, when the gas for the stove and water heater isn’t much to begin with.

    The Energy Assistance Program I was in last fall had a mandatory class the participants had to sit through. They made the mention that preheating the oven was a waste of energy. What a joke. The stove’s not the monster consumer of gas, it’s the furnace. And if you followed that advice about preheating, you could foul up a lot of things that are meant to be in the oven a very short time at a very high temperature. It’s not going to make a huge difference on something that will be in the oven for hours, but in those cases the energy costs to preheat the oven will be marginal compared to the total hours the dish will be in the oven (which still will not amount to much, when you’re looking at monthly gas bills just under $20). Getting my gas bill down from 66 cents a day to something like 58 is not worth my worry.

  50. Chrissy says:

    The pasta dish looks great. I am curious about the applesauce side. We do eat it on occasion as the kids and I enjoy the flavor however I try to encourage fresh apples since applesauce doesn’t really have much(if any) nutritional value. With the pasta dish I would have picked something that was a different color than the pasta to serve with it. Most likely as other posters have said a salad or a vegetable(s).

  51. david says:

    This may be a cheap and tasty meal, but it is a nutritional dead end.

  52. Elizabeth says:

    Trent, I’m not sure how you came up with your version taking twenty minutes, when you leave the pasta in the boiled (which I find takes roughly 10 minutes) and then turned off water for 20-25 minutes.

    As for working with the Microplane zester, if you have the long one, you can turn it upside down and do your zesting/grating and everything stays in the unit. It’s a great tool for citrus zest, hard cheese, nutmeg, and grated chocolate. Yum!

  53. Dottie says:

    I also have gotten into the the habit of turning the boiling water off and letting the pasta soak.I also do not preheat the oven for anything except cakes, cookies,baked goodies etc.
    I am going to try this recipe tonight..Looks good.

  54. Lotsofbluesky says:

    We waste money seeking too much protein. Does anyone know anyone in the US diagnosed with protein deficiency? But too much protein in our diets is common, dangerous and associated with cancer, kidney disease, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and infertility.

  55. Trent,

    Nice to see you! that recipe looks and sounds wonderful! I like the idea of letting the pasta cook with the heat off. good savings trick.Keep up the good work. You are an inspiration in these trying times.



  56. Melissa says:

    I’ve really enjoyed this series, “How Low Can You Go.” We tried this recipe tonight, but didn’t have all the ingredients so we substituted fresh things from our garden. We sliced eggplant and zucchini and roasted them instead of the asparagus. Very tasty! And super easy!

  57. Kim says:

    Quinoa is a great and very nutritious alternative to pasta in a dish like this. You can buy it in bulk at Whole Foods for nothing. It is full of protein and fiber. You could use this exact recipe, but substitute quinoa for the pasta. It is cheaper tastes great, and you won’t have all of the super refined pasta in the dish.

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