Pasta Fresca

overhead view of pasta fresca in a skillet with a spoon

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

This is a talent I do not possess.

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

One of my friends and I were discussing the show the next day and she said, “…it felt so good to LAUGH” and that hit me right in the feels. It DID feel so good to laugh! When’s the last time you laughed for an hour straight? Heck, even 5 minutes? May we all have more moments to laugh 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 flavor punch, but cooks in the amount of time it takes to boil a box of penne pasta.

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

pasta fresca ingredients in a skillet

Copy Cat Noodles & Company Pasta Fresca

In the early days of Ben’s and my marriage we ate at Noodles & Company every single week. I’d get Japanese Pan Noodles and he’d get Pasta Fresca. No deviation. Ever. Wouldn’t even consider it. Since our gluten-filled pasta-take-out days are long gone, I decided to recreate Ben’s favorite here at home — this time, no gluten required.

Pasta Fresca is gluten free penne pasta tossed with a medley of fresh vegetables including red onion, baby spinach, and tomatoes, tons of fresh garlic, a shortcut balsamic sauce, and the cheese topper of your choice.

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

plate of pasta fresca with a fork

Ingredients Needed

  • Penne pasta: I recommend Jovial gluten free brown rice penne. Feel free to use your choice of pasta — rotini, ziti, or rigatoni would be great shapes to use.
  • Red onion: sliced red onion provides color and flavor.
  • Garlic: there’s 6 — yes, six! — cloves of fresh garlic in this pasta recipe for tons of garlicky flavor. Feel free to dial back if you’re a medium on the garlic-loving scale.
  • Tomatoes: chopped vine-ripened tomatoes or Roma tomatoes help create a light pasta sauce. Halved cherry tomatoes would be great if they’re in season.
  • Baby spinach: I add an entire 5oz clamshell of fresh spinach to this dish to pump up the veggies. Give the spinach a rough chop before sauting 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’ll share my favorite brand below.
  • Parmesan or Feta cheese: Noodles & Company gives you the choice of shredded parmesan cheese or crumbled feta cheese to top your Pasta Fresca with. I prefer feta, while Ben goes with parm. 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. That said, the brown rice pasta, spinach, and tomatoes are great sources of plant-based protein! If you’re looking to stretch the dish a bit more though, here are some protein options to add to the recipe:

  1. Chicken: Before sauting the red onions, season 1lb diced chicken breast with Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt, and pepper then saute in extra virgin olive oil until cooked through. Scoop into a bowl then set aside. Add to the pasta cooking pot in step 3.
  2. Shrimp: Roast 1lb shrimp or, prior to sauting the red onions, dice 1lb jumbo shrimp into bite-sized pieces then season and saute like the chicken breast option above.
  3. Salmon: a roasted or Air Fried salmon filet would be divine served next to a scoop of Pasta Fresca. Season simply with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
  4. Italian Sausage: Before sauting the red onions, brown 3/4lb spicy or sweet Italian sausage then drain, set aside, and add into the pot at the end.
  5. Beans: I don’t typically love a double carb source in a meal (pasta + beans for example) but if you don’t have this same, very specific recipe ick, add a can of drained and rinsed garbanzo beans or great northern beans to the pot with the spinach mixture at the end to heat through.
  6. More veggies! Mushrooms, asparagus, peas, and/or chopped zucchini would all make excellent additions to this pasta dish to pump up the plant-based protein.

Alright, ready to cook?!

copycat noodles & company pasta fresca on a plate

How to Make Pasta Fresca

Step 1: Cook the pasta

Start by adding a 12oz box of gluten free penne pasta, or your favorite pasta shape, into a large pot of salted boiling water then cook according to package directions for al dente. Drain then set aside. Keep the pasta cooking pot out as we’ll use it to combine all the ingredients at the end.

brown rice noodles on a countertop

Step 2: Cook the vegetables

When the pasta is halfway done cooking, heat extra virgin olive oil in a 12″+ large skillet over heat that’s a touch above medium. Add sliced red onion, season with salt and pepper, then saute until the onions until crisp tender, 3-4 minutes.

sliced red onions sauting in a skillet

Next add lots of minced fresh garlic then saute until the garlic begins to turn light brown, 1-2 minutes, being very careful to not let it burn.

onions and garlic sauteing in a skillet

To the skillet add chopped fresh tomatoes then saute until they begin to soften, 1-2 minutes. Use your spatula to loosen any brown bits from the bottom of the skillet with the juices from the tomatoes.

chopped tomatoes sauting in a skillet

Lastly, add baby spinach, roughly chopped if the leaves are large, then saute until the spinach begins to wilt, 1-2 minutes. I like to switch to tongs at this point to help get everything mixed up.

baby spinach sauting in a skillet

You can see the spinach really cooks down!

Now, if the pasta isn’t done cooking yet, remove the skillet from the heat so the spinach doesn’t overcook.

pasta fresca ingredients sauting in a skillet

Step 3: Combine pasta and vegetables with vinaigrette

Add the cooked pasta back into the pasta cooking pot with the spinach mixture plus Balsamic Vinaigrette, which will create a light, flavorful sauce for the pasta. I love Ken’s Simple Vinaigrette Balsamic Vinegar for the job!

Turn the heat to low then stir everything to combine, heat through, and fully wilt the spinach.

hand holding a bottle of balsamic vinaigrette

Step 4: Top with cheese

Scoop the Pasta Fresca into bowls then top with crumbled feta or shredded parmesan cheese. I like feta because it creates a light and creamy sauce, but there’s something undeniably delicious about a simple, nutty sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

overhead view of pasta fresca in a skillet with a spoon

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

How to Store and Reheat

Should you have any leftovers, scoop them into an airtight container with a lid then store in the refrigerator. Reheat in the microwave. I don’t usually love reheated gluten free pasta, but the vegetables and balsamic vinaigrette keep the pasta from getting too hard in the fridge / falling apart when reheating.

However you serve it, I hope you love this feel-good, quick and easy gluten free Pasta Fresca recipe — enjoy!

plate of pasta fresca with a fork

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pasta fresca ingredients in a skillet

Pasta Fresca


Pasta Fresca is a veggie-packed pasta dish that cooks in less than 15 minutes. This easy dinner recipe is fresh, light, and filling!


serves 4

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


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil then season generously with salt and add penne. Cook until al dente then drain pasta and set aside. Keep the cooking pot out as you’ll use it again at the end.
  2. When the pasta is halfway done cooking, heat extra virgin olive oil in a large, 12"+ skillet over heat that’s a touch above medium. Add red onion, season with salt and pepper, then saute until crisp-tender, 3-4 minutes. Add garlic then saute until very fragrant and light golden brown, 1-2 minutes, being very careful to not let it burn. Add tomatoes then saute until they begin to soften, 1 minute, using the juices to help scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the skillet. Add baby spinach then saute until it begins to wilt, 1 minute — I like to switch over to tongs to help mix all the vegetables up. If pasta is still cooking at this time, remove skillet from heat so spinach doesn’t overcook.
  3. Place the pasta cooking pot back over low heat then add Balsamic Vinaigrette, drained pasta, and spinach mixture then stir until the dish is heated through and spinach is tender. Scoop into bowls then top with parmesan or feta cheese.


  • Use your favorite Balsamic Vinaigrette for this recipe. I like Ken's Simply Balsamic Vinaigrette.
  • Please read 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

READ: Pasta Fresca

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