It was only when I started working with Anna on her new book, FreeFrom all'Italiana Primi – that I realised, not only how many alternative pastas were now on the market, but how different the treatment of each one needed to be if it was to be enjoyed at its best.
If, for example you have ever tried serving a chickpea pasta with a creamy sauce, or a pulse-based pasta just with olive oil and garlic, you will know what I mean. And if you have, I do hope that the experience has not put you off trying that pasta again with a more appropriate accompaniment!
So, to help you on your way, here is a brief run down on what is available and what works best with it. But, first a few general comments.
Although some of the alternative pastas (corn and rice based for example) do taste very similar to durum wheat-based pasta, the ingredients are different so need to be treated differently.
Some alternative pastas will swell up more than a conventional pasta – some will swell up less. So you need to experiment yourself to find what weight of dry pasta will make what you consider to be a decent portion.
Cooking times will also differ and the instructions on the pack are not always that much help. Again, I would advise experimenting for yourself. Taste a piece of pasta every minute or so – some will literally only take two minutes – and just note how long it took for the pasta to reach your desired degree of 'al-dente-ishness'.
Do not expect all alternative pasta to taste like wheat based pasta. Some, especially the pulse based ones, can be coarser, some can be chewier, some, like the konjac-based ones can be very 'slithery'. Keep an open mind and match it with the right dressing before you leap to any conclusions!
Corn and corn and rice based pasta
Corn is the most common alternative base for pasta because it shares many characteristics with wheat. However it produces a very yellow and, not surprisingly, slightly corn-flavoured pasta that not everyone likes. However, the texture is similar to wheat-based pasta and it works quite well in most standard pasta dishes.
Corn is also often mixed with rice as a base which gives it a more 'normal' colour and flavour. Again the texture is similar to wheat based pasta and it works well with standard dishes and with relatively mild or creamy sauces. Anna created both leek and fennel based sauces which worked really well with corn or corn and rice fusilli or penne.
However, be aware that each brand will 'cook up' differently in terms of both volume and time taken to cook, so do experiment before serving it for a dinner party!
Rice noodles are, of course, traditional in the far east where they are widely used, mainly in soups although they can also be deep fried. They are made from white rice and are usually quite fine and soft so do not really work in a traditional pasta dish – although they certainly are delicious in soup.
Rice and other grain pastas
There are a number of pastas in which rice is paired with quinoa, millet, amaranth, buckwheat or teff. Since some of these (such as millet or quinoa) can be quite bitter, the rice 'tones down' the flavour to make it more acceptable as a base. These vary a lot depending on the manufacturer – some hold their shape better, some cook quicker or slower, some are more or less bitter so again, I would suggest some experimentation.
Those with a higher proportion of rice will be fine with mild or creamy sauces; those with higher proportions of quinoa or millet, say, may need a stronger flavoured sauce.
Rice and brown rice pasta
There are few pastas based on white rice, but brown rice can be very successful. This has a good smooth texture but a rather nuttier flavour so works better with more robust sauces – tomato-based, chilli, vegetable etc rather than creamy sauces.
Sometimes buckwheat is used on its own as a base. It makes a charcoal grey pasta, with a good texture but a strong flavour – not to everyone's taste although I love it. Serve with a vigorous sauce – lots of anchovies, smoked fish or meat, chilli – anything with a good robust flavour. Anna's recipe for buckwheat pasta with broccoli, garlic, anchovies and chilli is perfect.
Chickpea, edamame and black bean pasta
When these first appeared a few years ago they were quite coarse and did taste very 'beany' but manufacturing techniques have really improved and while there is still a faint but definite back bean flavour, the texture of the pasta is much smoother. However, it should still be paired with relatively vigorous sauces: tomatoes or even sundried tomatoes, chilli, salami, pancetta, anchovies, vegetables. Anna paired a black bean spaghetti with mussels, garlic and pesto - delicious.
Sesame, sorghum, green banana flour and flaxseed pasta
A small new company called Nomad Health has recently come up with a range of dried pasta based on an even more interesting selection of ingredients. All cook very quickly and while the sesame pasta is quite soft and works well with creamy sauce, the others are somewhat more 'wholemeal-y' and have stronger but certainly not unpleasant or overpowering flavours. Again, serve with a relatively vigorous sauce.
Konjac is a vegetable from which they make noodles in Japan. These look rather like rice noodles (very white and thin) but are a dieter's dream as they are virtually calorie free. They do, however, also have a very little taste and a quite strange chewy sort of texture. Using them in any sort of conventional pasta dish is hard as neither the textures nor the flavours really meld, but they could be quite successfully used in soups.
For fun we did use a genuine seaweed spaghetti (not a seaweed flavoured one) for the cover recipe in Anna's book – Seaweed spaghetti with smoked salmon and pesto sauce. This is not, of course, a manufactured product but a particular kind of seaweed that you can buy dried.
While some seaweeds (such as kombu) will, if cooked long enough, become just as soft as a wheat based pasta, the spaghetti always remains quite chewy – but certainly not unpleasantly so. Similarly, although it has a quite distinct flavour of its own it is not at all overpowering and worked really well combined with smoked salmon and Sacla's freefrom pesto – could not be an easier recipe! I could also fancy it with anchovies, sardines and spinach....
So the take home message here is to keep an open mind and be prepared to experiment – it may take you a couple of 'cooks' to get volume, the cooking time and the flavours sorted out. But once you do, there is a whole range of really exciting pasta dishes waiting there for you.
If you would like to get Anna's book, FreeFrom all'Italiana - Primi (hopefully to be followed by FreeFrom all'Italiana Antipasti, Secondi and Dolci) you can buy it both as an ebook and a printed book from Amazon here or you can buy the printed book direct from us here at a special discount of £7.99 instead of £9.99.
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