Five Delicious Alternatives to Wheat Pasta

That's right; it's gluten-free time again here at Eating Our Words. But unlike our previous few posts which have been GF product assessments, we're instead going to spotlight some of our favorite (and occasionally overlooked) alternatives to wheat pasta for those who need to cut out gluten from their diets or are just looking for something new to eat besides spaghetti. And experimenting is always a good thing.

5. Rice vermicelli noodles

Ignore for the moment the fact that "vermicelli" in Italian means "little worms." We aren't talking about the Italian version of these noodles anyway, which are made with semolina. We're talking about the long, skinny, almost glassy rice noodles that comprise popular Southeast Asian dishes like bun and pad thai. While these noodles are delicious, they aren't necessarily any healthier for you than regular wheat pasta -- but they're completely gluten-free, so now you have even more of an excuse to indulge in a peanutty platter of pad thai than you did before.

4. Spaghetti squash

Aside from the sheer interactive, kinetic joy associated with shredding a baked half of this unusual squash with a fork and watching the ribbons of "pasta" fall neatly into a bowl, one of the best things about the so-called "spaghetti squash" (Latin name: Cucurbita pepo) is how good it is for you. The squash is naturally low in calories, but packed with important nutrients like potassium, beta carotene, folic acid and Vitamin A. Plus, it tastes so similar to pasta, even your kids might not know the difference. This Smitten Kitchen recipe pairs it with couscous for an even bigger nutritional (and culinary) bang.

3. Risotto

Think that Italian food is out if you can't have wheat-based pastas? Think again. Risotto is just as important a staple in Italian cuisine as penne or fusili. And like those pastas, it can easily take on the flavors of whatever you're in the mood for -- walnuts and ricotta cheese? spinach, lemon and thyme? chicken and toasted pine nuts? -- just as easily as it can stand alone with only a few simple ingredients. This traditional short-grain rice has a natural and irresistably creamy texture when cooked properly that might make you forget all about fettucini alfredo or spaghetti alla carbonara.

2. Teff

This ancient staple of East African diets is -- like wheat -- a grass that contains gluten. But unlike wheat, it doesn't contain gliadin or glutenin, the gluten components that cause people with celiac disease to react negatively to wheat, barley or rye (all of which contains glutens with those components in them). What teff does contain is a lot of nutrients. We're talking about nearly your entire daily requirement of fiber and iron, as well as lots of calcium, phosphorous, protein and all eight essential amino acids. It's very nearly a perfect food. Give teff a try in injera bread over at Blue Nile. If you find the sour flavor enjoyable (we do, especially to cut spicy foods), you can find teff flour at stores like Phoenicia and Georgia's Farm To Market, and begin experimenting away.

1. Quinoa

Quinoa shares many similarities with teff. It's also a cereal grain, although entirely gluten-free, and contains all eight essential amino acids as well as an unusually high amount of protein. It's also nutritious on other levels, containing plenty of several different B vitamins as well as iron and magnesium. These qualities make quinoa ideal not only for GF folks, but vegetarians and vegans as well (need to get those meat-nutrients from somewhere!). But unlike teff, quinoa has a pleasantly nutty flavor and can be cooked in much the same way as rice. We like it with kale and sweet potatoes or even as a breakfast dish in lieu of granola -- just heap some yogurt and berries on top and it's delicious. The Incas once held this native South American grain sacred, and for good reason -- it's hands down one of the healthiest, yet most palatable, things you can eat.

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Katharine Shilcutt