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updated: 4/10/2013 2:59 PM

Lean and lovin; it: Bold ingredients flavor company-worthy casserole

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Creating lower-fat, reduced-calorie, great tasting meals got many folks calling me The LeanWizard.

My love of big-flavored, juicy hamburgers loaded with fresh onions, dill pickles, mustard and ketchup earned me the nickname Burger Boy.

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Since I'm a wiz at one-pan, get-it-to-the-table-fast stovetop cooking, not multi-step casseroles, no one's ever called me The Casserole Kid.

Yet that didn't stop me from recently heading into the kitchen and making one.

In an effort to both maintain my LeanWizard status and impress first-time dinner guests and their children, I decided a homey casserole would be ideal. So I headed to my cookbooks in search of the perfect casserole that would be both lean, and nearly effortless.

After grazing through several cookbooks and wandering around online recipe sources, I decided to make a casserole using fresh zucchini (a personal favorite) and spicy Italian sausage tossed together with pasta, tomatoes and cheese.

While online I tripped across the little-known fact that today's zucchini could be genetically modified (GMO). Unlike soybeans, corn and canola that have been genetically modified to resist dousing by Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, GMO zucchini resists a zucchini virus.

I chose, for the children coming to dinner, to go with organic zucchini and headed to my natural foods store and found reasonably priced organic zucchini (I only needed 1½ pounds).

Because this was going to be a family-style dinner, I also picked-up organic whole-wheat pasta and canned tomatoes, as well as organic half-and-half and naturally raised spicy Italian pork sausage. Those healthy ingredients were getting me excited about making my casserole.

One more lean issue to solve, though: whole milk mozzarella cheese (7 fat grams per ounce); the original casserole recipe required it.

When I weighed more than 325 pounds, whole milk mozzarella cheese, thanks to its creamy consistency, and buttery flavor topped many of my homemade pizzas. For this casserole, I decided to go with reduced-fat mozzarella cheese (4.5 fat grams), since the fat in the "real" half-and-half and imported parmesan cheese would sufficiently transport this casserole's cornucopia of flavors.

As is the case with many casseroles, getting all the ingredients prepped took some time -- quartering and slicing zucchini ... squishing the canned tomatoes ... peeling and mincing the garlic.

The recipe required sauteing and then simmering the zucchini. With the addition of baking the zucchini in the casserole it seemed like a fast track to mushy, unappealing results. To avoid that possible disaster, I simply sautéed the zucchini and then mixed it into the casserole before baking.

How did my casserole turn out? Sensational. My adult guests asked for the recipe before dinner was over and their children loved it and didn't mind that it was a bit spicy.

The Casserole Kid may soon be my new moniker.

Try this recipe: Next time you have special friends coming over, try this recipe. And be prepared to share a copy before dinner's over.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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