Guilt-free lasagna

A trim yet tasty chicken-and-ham casserole is easier on the waistline―and conscience―of a Maine reader.

Photo: Randy Mayor; Styling: Melanie J. ClarkePhoto: Randy Mayor; Styling: Melanie J. ClarkeTHE READER: Courtney A. Sparks, 29, graduate student and office manager for a real estate and construction company, Casco, Maine

THE RECIPE: Chicken-Ham Lasagna

THE STORY: Sparks first tried the lasagna recipe at work, when a coworker brought in leftovers. The rich and creamy dish was a hit, so she asked for the recipe and prepared it at home for her husband, Travis, a lasagna enthusiast. They both liked the results, which had lots of cream, cheese, and noodles. But Sparks, who tries to prepare healthful recipes and reasonable portions, knew it could be lighter. That way, she says, this casserole would be the type of dish she would take to a potluck or make for an everyday family dinner.

Dinner Tonight: Pasta

THE DILEMMA: With more than a cup of butter and a pint of half-and-half, plenty of whole milk, and a half-pound of cheese, Sparks says a serving "almost sank into your stomach, it was so heavy." Along with a hefty calorie and fat count, each portion weighed in at 199 milligrams cholesterol and 1,600 milligrams sodium-more than half the recommended daily amount. Sparks tried reducing the Parmesan cheese and using fat-free half-and-half, but she asked for our help to create a more healthful version.

Recipes: Superfast Italian Dishes

THE SOLUTION: Of concern to us was the abundance of heavy cream sauce coating the noodles, the use of full-fat dairy products, and two tablespoons of butter per serving. Since the original recipe made more sauce than needed, we cut back on those ingredients and still kept the lasagna moist and flavorful. Eliminating the half-and-half and butter shaved 315 calories, nearly 32 grams of fat (almost half of which contributed artery-clogging saturated fats), and 101 milligrams cholesterol per serving. Since skim milk would be too watery, we used 1% milk for a richer taste and a little creaminess. Stirring in some pungent Parmesan cheese thickened the milk sauce while boosting its flavor.

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The casserole's sodium content was also a problem. We were able to trim an impressive 546 milligrams sodium per portion by omitting the butter and salt from the original recipe. Substituting fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth for regular chicken broth and reducing the amount of cheese saved another 360 milligrams sodium per serving. Freshly ground black pepper lent a little bite to the lower-salt broth.

THE DIFFERENCE: Click here to see the final results of this recipe makeover.

Chicken-Ham Lasagna Recipe

Yield: 8 servings

2 cups fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces, divided
3 cups 1% low-fat milk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour (about 1 1/2 ounces)
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Cooking spray
12 no-cook lasagna noodles (8 ounces), divided
8 ounces thinly sliced 96% fat-free deli ham, chopped, divided
Chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°.

Place broth and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large skillet over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Add chicken; cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes or until chicken is done. Remove chicken from pan with a slotted spoon; set aside.

Combine milk, flour, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a bowl; stir well with a whisk until smooth. Add milk mixture to broth in pan. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Cook 1 minute or until mixture thickens, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add 1 cup cheese and parsley, stirring until cheese melts.

Spread 1 cup sauce over bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles over sauce. Spoon 3/4 cup sauce evenly over noodles. Top evenly with one-third ham and one-third chicken. Repeat layers twice, ending with noodles. Top with remaining sauce. Sprinkle evenly with remaining 1/2 cup cheese.

Cover with foil very lightly coated with cooking spray; bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Remove and discard foil; bake 10 minutes or until the cheese lightly browns. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.

Wine note: With a cue from the dish's overall unfussy character, the ideal wine needs to be inexpensive and uncomplicated. One of my favorite "comfort wines" to go with a comfort food like this is Australian shiraz. Annie's Lane Shiraz 2002 from Australia's Clare Valley ($15) is a simple blast of berriness with a soft texture. -Karen MacNeil

Nutritional Information
Calories: 260 (24% from fat)
Fat: 7g (sat 3.7g,mono 2g,poly 0.8g)
Protein: 28.9g
Carbohydrate: 18g
Fiber: 0.8g
Cholesterol: 57mg
Iron: 1.9mg
Sodium: 740mg
Calcium: 295mg

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