Perfect Pasta Without the Wheat


In honor of National Noodle Month, I though it’d be a good time to talk about the wheat-free pasta situation. Is it a situation at all? That’s for you to decide.

Pasta and sauce has always been the go-to meal for the time and cash strapped individuals and families out there. Spaghetti is cheap (about a dollar a pound for the basics) and a sauce can be anything from seasoned crushed tomatoes to olive oil with a little Parmesan cheese. It’s a satisfying meal, no question. And who hasn’t loved gooey mac & cheese at some point in their lives, right?

With many people looking to get whole grains in their diet, whole wheat pasta has secured a place on the shelves and–while not always as tasty as the refined durum semolina products out there, many of us accept it as one of those little steps we can take to be that much healthier.

When you go wheat free (like I did when I switched to a Low-FODMAP diet), pasta is one of those things you automatically kiss goodbye, usually with a heavy heart.

That doesn’t have to be the case, however, if you’re willing to give some alternate grains a try.

Rice, corn, and quinoa are the major players you’ll find when you hunt down the non-wheat pasta possibilities in your local grocery store. Some brands (like Heartland’s pretty blue and yellow packaging) can be found alongside the usual suspects in the pasta and sauce aisle. Their gluten-free pasta features a blend of corn and rice flours which taste very much like what we’re used to from their what counterparts. The only down-side I’ve experienced with this brand is that they tend to get dry and crumbly when refrigerated. They still eat fine, the texture just doesn’t hold up as well for leftovers. Still, when I made Macaroni and Cheese for our family of relatively picky eaters, I used their elbow macaroni noodles and no one had anything bad to say about my substitution.

Image via Heartland Pasta

Image via Heartland Pasta

Others, like Ancient Harvest’s quinoa pastas are more likely to be found in the specialty foods section of larger stores. We’ve been big quinoa fans for a while, and it’s such a great food on it’s own, but those unfamiliar with quinoa might need to get accustomed to this pasta’s flavor. It is a little heavier (akin to whole wheat pasta) than the corn and rice versions, but very tasty and probably comes in the most variety of sizes and shapes, though it’s usually the specialty stores that carry more of those options.

Image via Ancient Harvest

Image via Ancient Harvest

Or you can look for rice noodles in the ethnic foods section. These range from the usual cellophane noodles (though not much of a substitute for spaghetti) to almost clear rice pastas that offer substance if not a lot of flavor, to the Tinkyada brand of brown rice noodles. These noodles, to me, have the best flavor and texture of all the “substitute” pastas we’ve tried over the last several months and also reheat the best–important if you like to cook extra for leftovers. I’ve yet to find a local source that carries the variety that the product picture, below, shows, but we can usually find the elbows, fettucini, and spirals even in our local Wal-Marts tiny gluten-free section.

Image via Tinkyada

Image via Tinkyada

To get the best results from a wheat-free pasta, it’s very important not to over-cook them. Almost all of the noodles we’ve tried can get a little mushy, a little less than al dente, a little quicker than the sturdier wheat noodles. I’ve also found that it doesn’t always take the time the package says for them to reach perfect doneness, so don’t get distracted the first time you make a particular brand to avoid unpleasant results.

The other downside to these alternative noodles is that they cost about twice as much as the old standbys, sometimes a little more that double in fact. Still, if it’s a matter of being able to eat the foods I love without becoming ill afterwards, it’s a price I’m willing to pay (at least on occasion). After all, the other option is to make your own gluten-free pastas and while that’s something on the list to try one of these days, it’s nice to know that’s not my only option.


This post is based solely on our own experience with the brands listed above. We have received no compensation (direct or product-in-kind) for mentioning these brands and as food is strictly a matter of taste, your mileage may well vary. I encourage anyone on the hunt for gluten-free pasta to use this only as a starting point and get out there and explore the possibilities. Going wheat-free doesn’t have to mean giving up the foods you love.

Take a Bite Of: Picasso’s, Jacksonville, Florida


Sometimes a Plan B is the better course to take.

Pun totally intended.

When in Jacksonville last month for our final convention appearance of the year we were in a different part of town than usual and cast about for a place for dinner.

Finding out that there was a “Monkey’s Uncle Tavern” just down the street seemed like fate for me with my monkey obsession. They had good reviews and the menu seemed nice and easy, so off we went.

Only to walk into a wall of cigarette smoke within 5 feet of the door.

That wasn’t going to work (and we were a bit puzzled since the entirety of Florida is a non-smoking restaurant state*) so we high-tailed it out of there and decided to check out the place at the other end of the sidewalk we’d seen as we drove by.

Picasso's in Jacksonville, Florida

What we found was Picasso’s. An exposed-brick and chalkboard sort of place that seems to specialize in pizza and homemade pastas. They were still writing up that night’s wine list on one of their large chalk boards when we arrived and a few tables were occupied, but it was still a bit early in the evening. Over the course of our meal, however, we saw several patrons come in to pick-up pizzas, and nearly all the tables and booths were full when we left.

But what did we eat?

Picasso's Entrees

After ordering a glass of Pinot Noir, I settled on the pasta special of the night–a wide noodle pasta with mushrooms and a rich broth–while Todd went with Signature Pasta Trio. My dinner choice didn’t exactly mesh with the wine, but that’s the chance you take when you drink what you like and order wine before you’ve decided on entrees. Still, everything was excellent and, oh, those breadsticks. We were tempted to get an order to take back with us to the hotel for midnight snacking, they were that good. (Apparently they get them from a local bakery, the name of which escapes me, but our waiter said it like it was well-known among the locals.)

Desserts from Picasso's in Jacksonville, Florida

The portions were plentiful but not so much that we didn’t still have room for dessert. I chose the German Chocolate Cake white Todd went with the Chocolate Torte. Both were delicious.

Our bill was just $49 + tax and tip for a glass of wine, 2 entrees, and 2 desserts.

There’s a very good chance that we’ll be back at the same hotel in April and you can bet Picasso’s will be on our list for a revisit.


*The best guess on this is that the Tavern must make more than half its revenue in non-food sales, ergo smoking is still allowed.

Picasso’s is located at 10503 San Jose Blvd, Jacksonville, FL. We were not compensated in any way for this “review,” we just really enjoyed ourselves.

Again, apologies for the poor quality of the images–this was part of the set damaged in transfer and all I have are thumbnails. Butter than nothing, I guess!

Agnolotti with Garlic-Spinach Sauce

Agnolotti with Garlic-Spinach Sauce

Agnolotti with Garlic-Spinach Sauce

Fresh pasta is a treat. And while I do enjoy getting elbow deep in the semolina from time to time, it’s not convenient for your average weeknight dinner. The happy medium? Fresh pasta in the refrigerated section of your local grocery store.

We recently had the opportunity (read as: coupon for a free package) to try Buitoni’s Riserva Quattro Formaggi Agnolotti. Translated, that’s a 4-cheese stuffed pasta that look like half-round raviolis.

Having just had beef the night before, we paired it with chicken but didn’t relish looking at two beige-colored items on the same plate. Time to get creative.

First, I made a sauce of pomegranate liqueur, tequila, mustard and other savory ingredients and applied it to both sides of the rice flour-dredged chicken breasts as they cooked. Meanwhile (and as the pasta cooked–remember fresh pasta doesn’t take nearly as long to cook as dry) I melted butter as a base to a garlic and spinach sauce. Everything was ready at just the right time and dinner was delicious.

The Quattro Formagi Agnolotti are very tender (another hallmark of fresh pasta in general) with a creamy filling that pairs well with a simple oil or butter-based sauce. The addition of spinach definitely brightened up the plate a bit but, with the cheese filling, was almost like an inside-out creamed spinach (or would that be outside-in?).

According to the label, each 9-ounce package serves 2; that’s 6 agnolotti a piece. At 360 calories per serving, the addition of a nice sauce and a salad and this could be a dinner portion and not just a side dish. As an accompaniment, you might be able to get three smaller servings out, but there’s not really enough in each agnolotti for 4 servings in a single package.


Garlic-Spinach Sauce

1/2 c Butter, melted
1.5 T minced garlic
1.5 c cooked Spinach
1 T Salt
Fresh-ground Pepper, to taste

Melt butter in a small saucepan and saute garlic until golden brown. Add cooked spinach, salt and pepper and toss with cooked pasta.

Pomegranate-Mustard Chicken

2 T Spicy Brown Mustard
2 T Pomegranate Liqueur
1/2 T Agave Nectar
3/4 T Tequila
1/2 t Lime Juice
4 4-oz Chicken Breasts
3/4 c Rice Flour
Salt & Pepper
2 T Olive Oil

Combine mustard through lime juice in a small bowl, stirring to combine. Adjust flavors as needed. (Pomegranate juice can be substituted for the pomegranate liqueur and the tequila skipped if you’d prefer to not use alcohol.) Dredge chicken in rice flour seasoned with salt and pepper and brown on both sides in the hot oil. Spoon or brush the pomegranate-mustard mixture over each side of the chicken and continue to cook until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

[Disclaimer: I was provided with a free coupon for this item. All opinions and observations of this product are mine alone.]

More (or Less) Meatless


The second week of our cooking through Almost Meatless was just as tasty as the first. Maybe even more so?

Shabu Shabu Soup

Shabu Shabu Soup

We started with Shabu Shabu Soup. Traditionally this soup is served as a flavorful broth and a tray of thinly sliced meats and vegetables that cook almost instantly in the hot soup. It’s the sound of the add-ins sliding through the soup that gives the soup it’s name, according to the authors.

Tip for this recipe: to get the thinnest slices of steak without a deli slicer, slice the steak when still partially frozen. Just watch the finger-tips, they tend to go a bit numb doing this sort of thing, increasing the possibility of an ouchie!

This version of Shabu Shabu soup has all ingredients cooked before arriving at the table but it was another excellent choice for a summer meal. Not too heavy and an amazing flavor. The bok choy leaves do lend a bit of bite, along the lines of mustard or turnip greens, but any chance to use soba noodles in a dish makes me very happy (even if I had to check 3 grocery stores before finding them).

Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara

Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara

Next we skipped ahead to the eggs chapter and tried out the Springtime Spaghetti Carbonara. What could go wrong with fresh asparagus, peas and bacon? I’m not entirely sure but there was something just a touch off. Maybe it was the whole-what pasta we used? Maybe it needed more bacon (though, you know, that’s pretty much a given)? Or, maybe it just wasn’t what we were after that day. Who knows. It was fine as far as a pasta disk goes but it wasn’t the best thing we tried from the book.

Finally, it was time for the Albondigas. I just love saying that word: al-BON-di-gaas. Lamb and Irish-oat meatballs, a little spicy from the chipotle pepper, cooked in a rich tomato (or, in our case, roasted red bell pepper sauce). I had a pound of ground lamb and only needed half that so I made a double batch with plans for the leftovers already brewing.



One of the few recipes that came with serving suggestions, instead of lime rice we made lime quinoa and served it with the suggested flour tortillas. It was a nice little accompaniment to the spicy meatballs and helped dampen some of the fire. The steel-cut oats really added to the texture of the lamb and kept in a significant amount of moisture for the lean lamb.

The leftovers? Well, I’d been craving a meatball sub for quite some time and saw this as my opportunity to act on it. Picking up a load of french bread and provolone cheese, we spread the split loaves with mayonnaise (adds a wonderful creaminess to the acidic sauce on the meatballs) and lined them with provolone before popping them under the broiler to melt the cheese. The meatballs and sauce were added, another half slice of provolone on top and back under the broiler until the cheese melted again and the edges of the bread crisped.

Mom taught me that pickles make a lovely counterpoint to the rich taste of both tomato sauce on a meatball sub as well as barbecue sandwiches, so I added a little relish to my sandwich as well. Oh, so, yummy. A little extra grated Parmesan on top and these sandwiches totally cured my craving. In fact, a little queso fresco on top of the standard albondigas wouldn’t go amiss should we make these again!



And, hey, I got to drag my baguette pan out of storage–it makes the perfect holder for toasted subs to get maximum crispiness on the edges without spilling any of the filling!

After working our way through the cookbook (selected recipes, that is), did it fulfill those cover-flap promises?

Eating less meat is…

  • healthier? Probably. I mean we did eat less meat and more veggies. Did we, like, lose any weight in the process? Nope. If anything I felt heavier after some of these recipes than some of the balanced and properly portioned meaty meals we’ve eaten in the past.
  • cheaper? Definitely not. My grocery bill was the same if not more for 7 days of eating out of her book. Mostly from the vegetable requirements and specialty items that needed to be tracked down. I’m betting if you had a farmer’s market nearby (one that isn’t open only during workdays, for instance–sometimes it seems like you have to sacrifice a “normal” workday for access to healthy eating) or access to smaller portions of meats you might actually be able to save some cash. Keep in mind, too, that we already had several items so the higher bill came with the somewhat-shortened list.
  • eco-friendly? This one’s harder to say, for sure, but we definitely used less packaged items, created less trash and all that. It would take much more than a week, though, to really create any sort of environmental change.

All in all I enjoyed trying these recipes and look forward to making others at another time. I just don’t think I’ll be using this as my meat-adjusted bible any time soon.

Random Appetites: Pasta-rific


A recent Italian dinner reminded me of the following anecdote:

On one of many blind dates in my younger years I was taken to a chain restuarant infamous for servings various types of pasta from a variety of different cultures. Basically, you chose your style and then among a choice of actual pastas, depending on your order. I ordered the Pasta Florentine [florentine means spinach, no matter where you are] and requested farfalle for the pasta. “I’m sorry, we don’t have farfalle,” the waitress replied. I thought this was odd since it was pictured on the menu, but gamely I asked what pastas they did have. “Spaghetti, fetuccini, penne, bowtie and rotini.” With my best attempt at a raised eyebrow I ordered the “bowtie” and shuddered at what restaurants weren’t teaching their staff.

In case you don’t see the problem with the above exchange, farfalle is the correct term for the pinched rectangles with the ruffly edges that are also known as bow-tie pasta. The fact that the server didn’t know this is, to me, just as ridiculous as the (possible urban legend) McDonald’s employee not knowing that half a dozen nuggets is the same as a 6-pack.

What reminded me of this was dinner Sunday night: we found (thank you, Google) a family-owned Italian place with a fairly broad menu not too far from our hotel and gave it a whirl. On the menu were some unknowns: bucatini (which feels like a thick spaghetti but is really a tube, there’s a tiny hole in the middle) and tortelachi ( large tortelini–makes sense if you think about it). Thankfully, though, our servers had no issues with the menu and the food was excellent. I’ll be doing a proper write-up about it at some point in the future.

Until then, if you’re curious about pasta names and shapes, check out this handy page from the National Pasta Association.