A big bowl of pasta one or two days before a big road race is a time-honored runners' tradition.
Carbs are the body's primary fuel source during endurance events such as a half or full marathon. So thinking runners load up on them beforehand to ensure there's at least a little gas left in the tank for the finish.
There's no official pasta dinner as in past years for racers in the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon and UPMC Health Plan Pittsburgh Half Marathon; instead, a few local restaurants are offering deals for participants in the May 5 race, which has a combined sold-out field of approximately 20,000 runners. (Both races in 2012 were the 20th largest events of their kinds in the country.) So if you're looking to gather with family and friends in a festive, can't-wait-to-run atmosphere, you may want to organize a carbo-loading dinner at home.
Take a five-minute trip along the Pittsburgh Marathon course
Luke Mohamed offers a runner's perspective of the 26.2-mile course for this year's Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon. (Video by Steve Mellon; 4/24/2013)
No worries: We've got you covered.
As the DIY pasta recipes we've assembled so deliciously demonstrate, you don't have to be a culinary genius to cook up a dish that tastes as good as it is good for you in the days leading up to a big race. Nor do you have to spend a fortune on ingredients, or spend a lot of time fussing in the kitchen when you'd rather be doing more important things such as obsessing over how you're going to have the energy, or leg power at mile 12, to power up The Hill into Oakland.
Here's why it's probably not a bad idea to work a moderate amount of pasta into your pre-race diet. During digestion, the body converts the complex carbohydrates in pasta into glycogen, the readiest energy source for working muscles. The sugar enters the bloodstream, where it is transferred to cells to provide energy.
Two recent studies -- one conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota and published last month in The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, and another that studied competitors in the 2009 London marathon and was published in 2011 in the International Journal of Sports Medicine -- concluded that runners who had eaten the most carbohydrates on the day before the race finished faster than those who'd eaten fewer carbohydrates that day.
Looking for local anecdotal evidence of the power of carbs? Elite athletes participating in this year's Pittsburgh full and half marathons will enjoy a carb-heavy feast the night before at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel, with an early buffet dinner that features chicken breast, penne and baked potatoes.
But not too much of it, and you shouldn't overindulge, either: Stuffing yourself silly with carbs 12 hours before an event can leave you feeling sluggish, bloated and undigested at the start line, and as any runner can tell you, the last thing you want to deal with when there's many miles to go is stomach upset. (You want to wake up hungry, not full.) To that end, dinner should be about the same size and provide as many calories as usual; just replace some of the fats and proteins with carbs (they should count for 85 to 95 percent of your meal.)
There's another reason to eat pasta a day or two before race day. Carb intake before a long run aids in post-run recovery by reducing muscle fatigue and overall damage to the muscle fibers. Which means you'll bounce back that much sooner.
Pasta Primavera (Pasta with Spring Vegetables)
This simple pasta dish has all the fresh flavors and colors of spring. I especially liked the addition of fennel, an aromatic, crunchy-sweet member of the parsley family that imparts a delicate taste of anise.
This was the first time I've ever cooked with fresh fava beans, and I have to say, they take a bit of effort. You have to blanch and peel the beans before using, and 1 pound of unshelled pods only yields about 1/2 cup shelled beans. If you can't find baby leeks, which are sweeter and less fibrous than regular leeks, substitute fat green onions.
1 3/4 ounces unsalted butter
3 baby leeks, trimmed and sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small fennel bulb, very thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
5 1/2 ounces fava beans, blanched and peeled
5 1/2 ounces baby green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
5 1/2 ounces fresh peas
1 bunch thin asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
14 ounces cream
18 ounces ditali (short-cut tube) pasta
Salt and ground black pepper
3 1/2 ounces freshly grated parmesan
Melt the butter in a frying pan. Add leeks and cook gently for 5 minutes, then add garlic and fennel and cook until soft.
Add salt to a large saucepan of water and bring to boil. When water boils, drop in fava and green beans, peas and asparagus. As soon as the water comes back to the boil, lift the vegetables out with a slotted spoon (reserve water for cooking the pasta) and add them to the frying pan with the leek and fennel mixture. Pour in cream and bring to a boil. Let it bubble for 2 minutes -- the vegetables should still have a crunch -- then remove the pan from the heat.
Boil the pasta in the vegetable water until al dente.
Drain pasta well and add to cream and vegetable mix. Toss everything together. Season with salt and pepper, add the parmesan and serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6.
-- "Four Seasons: A Year of Italian Food" by Manuela Darling-Gansser (Hardie Grant, 2012)
Pork and Ginger Wonton Stir-Fry
This inside-out dumpling/noodle dish is an Asian version of spaghetti and meatballs. If you're not a fan of pork, no problem: simply substitute ground chicken or turkey.
The first time I made this I (rather stupidly) threw all the wonton skins into the boiling water at the same time. Big mistake -- the noodles glommed into one big, unappetizing lump. We still ate it, of course, chopping up the noodles, but not without my kids complaining.
8 ounces wonton skins
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons safflower or peanut oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
1 pound ground pork
1 serrano chile, thinly sliced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
1 lime, cut into wedges
Separate the wonton skins so they do not stick together. Cut wontons into thirds, so they resemble wide, short noodles. Set aside.
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil.
Stir together the soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and sugar in a small bowl. Whisk in the cornstarch.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil. When it shimmers, add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground pork, breaking it up with a spoon into smaller pieces, and cook until cooked through and no longer pink, 3 to 5 minutes.
When pork is cooked, add sauce mixture and cook until liquid has been absorbed. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the sliced chile and scallions.
Drop wontons into boiling water (you may need to separate them again as you add them to the pot, use your fingers). Stir and cook until they rise to the top and are tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain well and add to pan with the pork.
Squeeze the lime juice over the dish and serve immediately.
-- "Mad Hungry Cravings: 173 Recipes for the Food You Want to Eat Right Now" by Lucinda Scala Quinn (Artisan, March 2013, $27.95)
Pappardelle with Meatball Pearls
Quick and easy, and extremely flavorful. I used San Marzano plum tomatoes.
6 Italian sausages (sweet or hot)
2 cups Fabio's Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
1 cup beef or chicken stock
1 pound pappardelle (broad, flat pasta noodles)
Handful fresh basil
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Pull the meat out of the sausage casings in tiny bits.
Combine the tomato sauce and stock in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until it bubbles. Add sausage bits to the pot and continue cooking another 10 to 12 minutes, until sausage is fully cooked and sauce has reduced and thickened. Remove from heat.
Cook pasta in salted boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on thickness; drain.
Toss pasta in sauce, then add basil and extra-virgin oil. Boom!
-- "Fabio's Italian Kitchen: Over 100 Delicious Family Recipes" by Fabio Viviani (Hyperion, April 23, 2013, $24.99)
Fabio's Tomato Sauce
6 cloves garlic
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
Salt and pepper
10 basil leaves
Smash the garlic with the back of a knife. Place garlic and 5 tablespoons oil in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until the garlic is golden brown. Add tomatoes and generous pinches of salt and pepper.
Cook over medium-high heat until sauce is thick and no longer watery, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add remaining 3 tablespoons oil and turn heat to high. Stir, crushing the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook until oil turns red, then turn off the heat and add the basil at the very end.
Makes 2 cups.
Light Fettucine Alfredo
Veteran racers know to steer clear of sauces with too much oil, cheese or butter because they can be difficult to digest. This is a low-fat version of the classic Alfredo dish -- just 275 calories and 4 grams total fat (1 gram saturated) per serving. Broccoli adds a punch of protein. Good enough that my girls took the leftover to school for lunch.
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 small onion (4 to 6 ounces), finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, crushed
2 cups fat-free milk
1 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 pound fettuccine
1 pound broccoli florets
In nonstick 12-inch skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is golden, about 8 minutes. In bowl, with wire whisk, whisk milk, broth, flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Add onion mixture and cook, stirring, until sauce has thickened and boils; boil 1 minute. Stir in parmesan.
Meanwhile, in large saucepot, cook pasta as label directs. After pasta has cooked 7 minutes, add broccoli to pasta water. Cook until pasta and broccoli are done, 3 to 5 minutes longer. Drain pasta and broccoli.
In warm serving bowl, toss pasta with broccoli and sauce.
-- "Good Housekeeping 400 Calorie Italian" (Hearst, April 2, 2013, $14.95)
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published April 25, 2013 4:00 AM