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Using Your Noodle: Pasta Alternatives

By John DiGilio in Food on Aug 18, 2011 6:20PM

2011_8_DiGilio_Pasta.jpg For many of us, pasta is a passion. We could eat it with almost every meal. When it comes to entrees, side dishes, and even desserts, pasta is prolific. It cuts across cultures and cuisines. Pasta is almost a universal language in and of itself. Yet not everyone can or should eat so much of it. From carbohydrate concerns to gluten intolerance, plentiful portions of pasta are not for everyone. For those who need to either cut back or cut it out all together, there are some seriously tasty options with which you can pile your plates.

Have you tried tofu noodles yet? Increasingly popular because they look like regular pasta and are almost as versatile, tofu noodles have far fewer carbohydrates than their flour-based cousins. They are made from soy and are usually ready to eat straight out of the package. To warm them up, up you can simply run them under a hot tap or give them a quick dip in a pot of boiling water. They hold sauces quite nicely and are fantastic in cold salads. Chicago’s own Phoenix Bean is one of the premier producers of tofu noodles. Owner Jenny Yang and her crew can be found at farmers’ markets all over the city selling their noodles and tofu and their products can be found in both local stores and restaurants. You can even visit their factory in Edgewater to buy fresh at great prices.

For something really different, there is also the spaghetti squash. You have probably seen these in stores and wondered about the name. Once cooked (microwaving works!), a fork can be dragged through the meat of this squash to produce spaghetti-like strings. Eaten alone, there is a definite taste and texture difference from standard pasta. However, once you start adding your sauces and toppings, this dish really comes into its own. Being purely vegetable, spaghetti squash is not only low in carbs, but also low in calories. Katie Farrell of Dashing Dish has one of the best spaghetti squash how-to’s we have ever seen. Her step by step instructions, with pictures, will have you twirling these golden “noodles” in no time. If you want to try it at a restaurant, Haymarket's Vegan BBQ sandwich features the squash.

The latest craze is all about whole wheat pasta. It is popping up on store shelves everywhere. Though you do not save a lot on carbohydrates, you certainly get a boost of fiber and vitamins. The darker color of these noodles is a little odd for some and the texture can be a bit of an acquired taste. But substituting whole wheat pasta for regular even occasionally can do you a whole lot of good. We find that it works best with heavier sauces, as its flavor tends to overwhelm lighter ones like pesto. If portion control is your problem, the high fiber content of these noodles makes you feel full faster and makes it harder for you to overeat. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when preparing this pasta.

For our diabetic friends, there is a final group of noodles worth noting - specialty high-fiber pastas. Made by companies such as the popular Dreamfields brand, these are similar to whole wheat pastas (Dreamfields' is actually a "better for you" white pasta) to which inulin is added. Inulin is a form of soluble fiber which the body has a hard time processing. Because of its indigestible nature, it fills you up without raising your blood sugar. Reviews of this type of pasta are mixed and marketers often caution consumers to add it to their diets slowly as it can cause a little extra wind, if you know what we mean.

Pasta is an American staple, whether we like it Italian style or served up as lo mein. Medical conditions aside, the problem really appears to be one of moderation for most of us. The occasional plate of spaghetti isn't a bad thing. The problem starts when the occasional serving gives way to constant overconsumption. The good news is that no one, intolerant and over-indulgent alike, has to be pasta deprived. Use your noodle, make healthy choices, and slather your sauce on a few of these alternatives.

Photo by Sherool.