Comfort food for winter

January 13, 2023 at 2:30 p.m. | Updated January 15, 2023 at 4:25 p.m.
With flavorful foods, like these homemade stuffed shells, you can hold off the salt, which contributes to high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart disease.
With flavorful foods, like these homemade stuffed shells, you can hold off the salt, which contributes to high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart disease. Katy G. Wilkens

I love the change of seasons. Just when I get tired of using the same old ingredients, the weather changes, and new foods become available for new meals.

One of my favorite winter veggies is parsnips. Think of them like the sweetest carrot you have ever eaten. Paired with a tart summertime veggie like tomatoes, their flavor just pops. I use cherry tomatoes in the winter as a substitute for whole tomatoes because they are more consistently flavorful. Spinach is another winter-tolerant vegbetable that also pairs well with tomatoes. This time fresh or frozen spinach can help fill pasta shells, and then the shells are smothered in bright tomato sauce as a reminder that summer really will return. 

Food is more flavorful when you cook seasonally — that is, when you use the fruits and vegetables that are in season, harvested at the peak of ripeness. With flavorful foods, you can hold off the salt, which contributes to high blood pressure, kidney disease and heart disease.

Parsnip and Tomato Casserole

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound parsnips, and/or potatoes and carrots

1 tablespoon fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup heavy cream, or half-and-half

1 10-12 oz box of cherry tomatoes, sliced

1 tablespoon fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried oregano

1½ cups grated cheddar or mozzarella cheese

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut parsnips into ¼-inch slices. If slices are really large, cut in half. Cook in a skillet with oil, thyme and sugar for 5-7 minutes, until golden and softened.

Grease a small casserole or baking pan. Spread half the parsnips over the bottom of the dish. Add half the tomatoes as the next layer. Sprinkle with cheese. Add another layer of parsnips and tomatoes, and then the rest of the cheese. Mix oregano with cream or half-and-half and pour over dish. Cover with lid or foil and bake about 40 minutes, until tender. Remove lid and brown a few more minutes. Makes 6 servings.

Nutritional Information (per serving)

Calories: 297, Carbohydrates: 20 grams, Protein: 9 grams, Sodium: 221 milligrams

Stuffed Shells

1 package extra-large pasta seashells, or manicotti tubes

1 large carton ricotta cheese

2 eggs, beaten

Bunch of baby spinach or 2 packages frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove excess water

½ cup or so of fresh basil, chopped

1 large can tomato sauce

Fresh grated Parmesan cheese


Heat oven to 350 degrees. Start large pot of water boiling for pasta. Add shells and cook only about 4-5 minutes. You want them still stiff enough to hold their shape. Meanwhile, put the baby spinach or thawed frozen spinach in a bowl and microwave about 2-3 minutes. It should be wilted.

Mix together ricotta, cooked spinach, basil and eggs. Rinse pasta in cold water. Using a spoon, fill the shells. Put half the sauce on the bottom of a greased casserole dish and place shells, filled-side up. Drizzle top with remaining sauce and sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake uncovered for 30 minutes. Makes 9 servings.


Nutritional Information (per serving)

Calories: 365, Carbohydrates: 39 grams, Protein: 20 grams, Sodium: 544 milligrams

[Contributor Katy G. Wilkens recently retired as registered dietitian and department head at Northwest Kidney Centers. The National Kidney Foundation Council on Renal Nutrition has honored her with its highest awards for excellence in education and for significant contributions in renal nutrition. She has also been awarded the Medal of Excellence in kidney nutrition from the American Association of Kidney Patients.]

Eating Well, Living Well classes

Studies show that working with a registered dietitian can delay kidney failure and postpone dialysis for longer than two years. FREE nutrition classes taught by Katy’s former team of registered dietitians are available at convenient times and locations around Puget Sound.

Eating Well, Living Well classes teach people how to eat healthier to slow the progress of kidney disease and postpone dialysis. Learn more at

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