food

Six pastas for people who are afraid of pasta

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White carbs – once they were the most popular food at the buffet table, providing most people with most of their calories and flaunting their ‘six serves a day’ status at the very bottom of the food pyramid.

But those days are gone. Now we’re worried that grains are slowly poisoning our minds and our digestive tracts. We know that pasta’s glycemic index scores are less than optimal – spaghetti and macaroni are particularly likely to send your blood sugar on a rollercoaster ride. Healthy eaters have soured to sour dough, and plenty of us sport maybe-made-up, but maybe-not gluten intolerances.

Modern dietary recommendations suggest throwing out anything your grandmother wouldn't recognise as food, and taking it easy on anything that’s too refined or processed.

This is all fine, and understandable. There’s just one problem: pasta is delicious. It’s also quick and easy to cook. Sure, cavemen didn’t have carbonara, but they also didn't have to stay back at the office until 7.30pm and still wake up early enough the next day to make it to a 6.45am yoga class.

It is possible to get the bulk of your caloric intake from good fats and protein, but it is so much easier not to. Enter a new breed of pasta substitutes that can slot into your previous carb-laden eating routine, but with less calories, no gluten and hopefully minimal guilt.

For the love of spag bol, I tried a few out, and here they are, ranked from most to least pasta-like.

Fresh fettuccine

Not all pastas were created equal, at least when it comes to their number on the glycemic index. Fettuccine has a GI score of 32, which is about as low as you can go in the world of pasta - the glycemic score of spaghetti, in comparison, is 46. Because fettuccine is actually pasta, it’s still processed, full of gluten, and made of wheat, but it does release glucose more slowly into the body than its peers, making you feel fuller for longer. Plus it’s fresh, so you only have to boil it for a couple of minutes before eating.

The upside: It tastes exactly like pasta, because it is pasta. It’s also significantly less caloric than spaghetti. Seriously - it’s 606 kilojoules per 100 grams, in contrast to spaghetti’s 1510 kilojoules per 100 grams.

The downside: It’s still guilty of most of pasta’s sins, like containing gluten and refined grains. And, at between $5 and $7 a packet, it’s not as cheap as other pastas.

Serve it with: This works with just about any sauce you’d use any other pasta for, unless you want to make something that specifically calls for a super-fine angel hair noodles, like a chicken soup.

Spelt spaghetti

Contrary to the beliefs of many, shall we say ‘gluten challenged’ individuals, please know that spelt is not gluten free. But it does have a lower GI than regular spaghetti, and slightly fewer calories. It’s also quicker to cook than durum wheat pastas (boil it for about six minutes), and unlike wholegrain pasta options, it doesn’t have that weird, gritty taste. Well... mostly doesn't.

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The upside: It’s lower calorie, lower GI, lower cooking time than regular pastas.

The downside: Like fettuccine, it’s still got gluten, and it’s still very processed.

Serve it with: Spelt pastas are quite close to the real deal, but they’re not a perfect match. This means delicate and creamy sauces don’t taste quite right with them. Heavier tomato and meat-based sauces work well, and spelt pastas also taste good in soups like minestrone and chicken broth.

Gluten-free pasta

Different brands use different combinations of starches to create their gluten-free pastas, but the ingredients list is typically comprised of some corn starch, some sort of potato derivative, tapioca, rice flour and a bunch of mysterious ‘emulsifiers’ and ‘stablilisers’. Gluten-free pastas all share one thing in common: they do not taste like pasta. Sure they’re shaped like pasta, and you cook them like pasta (for a slightly shorter time), but when it comes to taste and texture they live in a creepy parallel universe where linguini tastes like gnocchi and has the texture of udon. At least, that’s what I found with the Heinz variety I tried.

The upside: It’s gluten-free, so if you’re celiac, you’re good to go.

The downside: If anything, gluten-free pasta is more caloric than the regular stuff, and it’s certainly far more processed.

Serve it with: The thicker and more powerful the sauce is, the less of a problem gluten-free pasta’s weirdness is. A strong Bolognese or ragú works fine, but something quite delicate like a white wine and seafood sauce will taste noticeably different, and not in a good way.

Zoodles

If you’ve searched #cleaneating on Instagram lately, you’ve probably run across zoodles, zucchini-linguini, or their cousin, the sweet potato pasta. If not, the concept of these pasta substitutes is pretty simple: you take a fibrous, water-holding vegetable like zucchini, squash or kumera, then you food-process it into a pasta shape, steam or blanch it and serve it with sauce. If you own a food processor you can use the grater attachment to turn veggies into noodles pretty quickly. Grated vegetables cook really fast, so you only need to steam them for a minute or two before they’re ready to be combined with pasta sauce.

I don’t own a food processor, so instead I lovingly sliced myself zucchini reginette using a peeler. It took me about 15 minutes to make three zucchinis worth of pasta, which was a perfect amount for a dinner for two. Then I steamed it for four minutes. If you feel like investing some serious cash and bench space into making pasta out of veggies, then you can spend $50 on a spiraliser.

In terms of functionality, zucchini pasta is a pretty reasonable substitute for pasta. It twirls around your fork like pasta, and it hold sauce like pasta. However, it does not taste anything like pasta. Instead, it tastes exactly like zucchini.

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The upside: Zucchinis have only 66 kilojoules per 100 grams and have significant amounts of Vitamin C, B6 and trace amounts of calcium and Vitamin A. They’re also a great source of fibre, and like all vegetables, they’re just all-round excellent for you. You should be eating seven serves of veggies a day, and using them as a pasta substitute sure is a good way to get there. This is the only pasta substitute that fits in with a paleo diet’s unprocessed mantra.

The downside: Zucchini does not, and will never, taste like pasta. Same goes for sweet potato. The prep time is also significantly longer than for pasta, because you have to make the zoodles fresh.

Serve it with: While vegetable pastas work with thick vegetable and meat-based sauces, they’re hopeless for things like carbonara where you cook the sauce by stirring it through the pasta.  You can apparently make creamy sauces with zoodles using coconut and avocado – although I’m yet to try it.

Konjac noodles

Sold in Australia as Slim Me Noodles or Slendier Noodles, this konjac root derivative is clear and slimy. You prepare konjac root noodles by soaking them in just-boiled water for two minutes to heat them. These babies are gluten free, incredibly low in energy, and if you buy Slendier, they’re even organic. But unfortunately, they taste creepy as hell. They’re kind of the texture of seaweed, but softer and slimier, and their flavour is non-existent. Personally, I’d rather just eat my pasta sauce with a spoon.

The upside: Only 42 kilojoules per serve, gluten free, vegan, wheat free and low GI. Basically everything you’re told is good for you.

The downside: While being ‘everything-free’ may sound like a winner, konjac noodles are highly, highly processed. They also break the ‘would my grandmother recognise this as food?’ rule. Konjac noodles are upwards of four times the price of regular pasta and their taste more closely resembles a sea monster’s whiskers than anything in a Barilla box.

Serve it with: Dishes that go with glass noodles and vermicelli taste okay with konjac noodles, but anyone who tells you their texture and taste works with any kind of Italian-style pasta dish is lying. The thought of eating these things with cheese and pesto makes me physically shudder, and I love cheese and pesto.

The verdict

If you don’t care about a pasta-ish taste, then using veggies as a pasta substitute is a great idea.

There’s no such thing as a gluten free pasta substitute that actually tastes like pasta. If you’re celiac, just eat rice, it’s much more delicious than fake pasta. As for the rest of us, if you’re going to brave the grain, the real winner here is fresh fettuccine.