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Carb Solutions: The Pasta Salad

Image of Carb Solutions: The Pasta Salad
Over half of the U.S. adult population, some 154 million, qualify as being overweight or obese. Another 29 million of us have Diabetes, many as a direct result of being overweight. Then there are the 23.9 million overweight children who are dutifully following the example of their XXL adult role models. Diabetes and these extra pounds cost this country billions annually in both medical and economic resources; not to mention the effect these weight-related maladies have on a person’s overall mental well-being and happiness. However, both diabetes and being overweight are very manageable, even preventable, with a few lifestyle tweaks. By maintaining a sensible diet in conjunction with some consistent exercise, no matter how minimal, we can all be in total control of our own weight. One easy way to start taking that control is to make decisions about the foods we eat based on the glycemic index [GI] and glycemic load [GL].

Simply put, our bodies convert all foods into sugar calories that provide energy to the body via the blood stream. The Glycemic Index assigns a score of 1 to 100 to all foods based how speedy the body converts that food into sugar. Foods that break down slowly enable the body to assimilate theses calories of energy more efficiently without overwhelming the body with more sugar than it can process. While this is especially important for diabetics who process sugars much slower than others, everyone can benefit from eating foods that have low glycemic scores since they also reduce appetite and encourage the metabolism to burn body fat. Conversely, a diet of foods high on the glycemic charts have been proven to actually increase appetite and impede effective fat oxidation.

  • The glycemic index of a food compares its effect on blood sugar level to that of pure glucose, which has a score of 100. White breads, which are made of processed white flour, are at the top of this scale, scoring a “perfect” 100 on the glycemic index. For perspective, a score of 55 or below denotes a low-glycemic-index food; 70 or above is considered very high. Serving size is not a consideration in arriving at a food’s Glycemic Index number.
  • The glycemic load, on the other hand, focuses on how much digestible carbohydrates (sugars) a food contains in a typical single serving, which is defined as approximately 3.5 ounces. For glycemic load, a score of 20 or more is high, while 10 or less is low.

Who says that counting carbs means counting OUT pasta? That is true if one is talking about regular durum wheat refined pasta, which is the most popular type of pasta sold in the U.S. marketplace. Unfortunately, refined pasta has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, high blood sugar and insulin resistance. I am not one for replicating high-carb foods with low-carb look-a-likes as it does not cultivate the willpower needed when tempted by the real thing—and we are all tempted every day with stuff we should no longer eat! So, I find it best to develop a palate that is not addicted to the old high-carb flavor memories that my metabolism can no longer assimilate. With one exception…

Melissa’s Shirataki Noodles are a diabetic pasta lover’s Holy Grail! Admittedly, I was skeptical when I received my first packages of these tofu noodles as an ingredient in a miso soup recipe I was working on. However, I was pleasantly impressed that this product might be the low-carb noodle I have been hoping for ever since I stopped making my own with the diabetes diagnosis. Out of sight out of mind, I say, so pasta has been on my no-fly list for over twenty years; though my doctors argued against it for ten years before I paid any attention! While the tofu noodle does lack a bit of the same firm texture that durum wheat provides, it’s not a perfect world and they are real noodles—even plant-based just like wheat pasta!

Since that miso soup experience, I have tried these spaghetti-type noodles in several dishes—cooking and treating them just like pasta with great success. The difference being that there is hardly a carb in sight—6 grams of carbs per serving for the tofu noodles. Durum wheat semolina pasta contains a whopping 123 grams for the same sized serving! So, in these days of dietary compromise, I say that the texture and flavor is close enough, especially when creatively seasoned and paired with other components. While the traditional pasta salad is usually made with those twisty rotini noodles, again, life is filled with compromise. The shape of the pasta, normally an important factor in the art of cooking pasta, pales compared to the lack of carbs this alternative contains for this pasta-deprived carb counter!

Since I had thought of other ingredients for a pasta salad in years, it was fun to apply the standards of the now healthier me and my dietary limitations to this favorite dish. This meant that the traditional high-caloric, heart-stopping, wonderfully delicious salami had to go as well as any mayo-based dressings. It may sound a little boring and certainly not as sexy as shaved salami slices, but the fresh seasonal harvests of the day can be eye-catching and flavorful without all the fat, calories and bad cholesterol baggage that is a part of these traditional components! Hey, if it means sacrificing a few slices of salami to enjoy pasta again, I’m all in!

The pasta salad is a dish usually found at summer potlucks and picnic tables. However, using a few of the colorful fruits of winter can bring some warm weather cheer to an otherwise blustery February day, lifting spirits as good food often does. At this time of year, retail displays offer several kinds of citrus and pear varieties; I chose some easy-to-peel Satsuma tangerines and the richly flavorful Bosc pear to add color, flavor and textures to the salad. Of course, no salad is worth its salt (to taste) without avocado… there is NOTHING a fresh avocado does not improve, but that’s a whole other blog! Pomegranates are also in abundance right now; besides being packed with beneficial antioxidants, the ruby red arils lend gem-like color and a tart-sweet flavor to the mix.

Since the star of this dish is my new-found pasta, the ingredient list was kept short so as not to clutter the plate with too many competing flavors. That goes for the dressing, too—keep it simple. A basic mix of balsamic, good olive oil and just a touch of mustard provides just the right flavor accent to each of the fruits and the spinach leaves, as well as coating the noodles in a subtle, complimentary flavor. Pasta salad! I thought those days were long gone. Another reminder of the “assume nothing” rule—even in the kitchen!

Low-Carb Pasta Salad
Servings: 6 - 8

Image of Ingredients
For the dressing, combine:
½ cup good-quality balsamic vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
Salt & pepper to taste

For the salad:
2 packages Shirataki Spaghetti Noodles
4 Satsuma tangerines, peeled, segmented
2 cups packed baby spinach leaves
2 Hass avocados, chopped
1 Bosc pear, chopped
Pine nuts (garnish)
Pomegranate arils (garnish)

Image of noodles in a bowl
Make the dressing. Cook the Shirataki noodles according to package directions. Place the noodles in a large serving bowl and toss with a little of the dressing to keep them from sticking together.
Image of mixing noodles with tangerine segments
Add in the tangerine segments and toss with half of the remaining dressing, cover and refrigerate until chilled – at least an hour.
Image of adding spinach to noodle salad
When ready to serve, add pears, avocados, spinach and then toss remaining dressing. Sprinkle with pine nuts and pomegranate arils. Serve family style in a large serving bowl.

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