Gluten-Free Spaghetti & Marvelous Meatballs
It looks normal. It tastes normal. And this gluten-free comfort dish won’t break the bank. Better still, you can get all the ingredients in a regular grocery store. Great! --Linda Simon
There is an explosion of gluten-free food choices right now. On my last grocery store trip, I counted eight different brands of spaghetti in the ever-expanding gluten-free section. Though there may be choices galore, there are a few basics you'll want to focus on:
- What’s readily available?
- How I can be sure it’s gluten-free?
- Does it really taste, look and behave the same as “regular” pasta?
- Is this going to cost me a lot?
Though the diet has been around a while, gluten-free cuisine has become a hot topic of late. Just recently, I read an article in Bon Appétit, where the editors rated their top three gluten-free pasta brands. Two of them were from Italy, available online and VERY pricey. I’m talking $7 or $8 for 8 ounces and that doesn’t include added shipping costs. That works out to about $15 dollars a pound! For that price, I prefer to treat myself to really good steak instead.
The other brand in Bon Appetit’s list was Ancient Harvest Supergrain Quinoa Pasta. I didn’t find their spaghetti in my grocery store, but the store did carry their linguini. The suggested retail is $2.99 for 8 ounces. A bargain -- sold!
When you open the box, there is a surprise inside: It’s yellow, thanks to a combo of quinoa and corn flour. The directions say to cook for 6 to 9 minutes, but after 6 minutes it was truly undone. Eight minutes was perfecto.
My feedback: The color could be off-putting to some; others will not care. The flavor and texture are fine. A few of the strands stuck together and didn’t soften as much as the rest, despite stirring during cooking. Nutritionally, this pasta offers more fiber and iron than other gluten-free pastas.
But there is a big caution: Ancient Harvest Supergrain Pasta comes in two varieties. One is gluten-free and one is not. At first glance, the boxes look nearly the same. Be sure to thoroughly read the label and buy the gluten-free kind.
Of course, my standby gluten-free pasta is Tinkyada; it's what I used for the recipe below. Made with brown rice and additional rice bran, Tinkyada is readily available, reasonably priced (about $4 for 16 ounces) and similar in taste and texture to wheat pasta; it is a bit paler, softer and blander than wheat pasta, though. This pasta does take longer to cook -- about 15 minutes. And since it is rice-based, it only offers 2 grams of fiber per serving, which is lower than Ancient Harvest.
Answer: They’re half meat and half mushrooms! Traditional meatball recipes usually call for breadcrumbs, which are made with wheat (full of gluten!). Sure, you can buy gluten-free breadcrumbs, but they are pricey and may be hard to find.
Some gluten-free cooks suggest making breadcrumbs out of gluten-free yeast bread that you bake yourself or buy pre-made. Thing is, gluten-free yeast bread often resembles a doorstop – that is, hard and thick. Believe me, there are better options for your meatballs. To keep it simple, my go-to choice is minced mushrooms.
Well, mushrooms are readily available, full of flavor, nutritious, budget-friendly and produce delectable results. Every fresh produce counter carries simple button mushrooms. In the recipe below, I used a whole pound of mushrooms, and the flavor intensifies as the mushrooms cook. They taste meaty -- full of that umami flavor -- like a hearty meatball should.
An Italian friend, who is also a personal chef, taught me how to make the most tender meatballs. Just shape them and gently place them into simmering marinara. Do not brown the meatballs first. Cover the sauce pan and do not disturb the pan for the first 10 to 15 minutes. You need to leave these meatballs alone because they’re a bit fragile; you want shape here, not meat sauce.
You can make your own sauce or use bottled marinara. Healthy Eats rated five marinara sauces (Barilla, Newman’s Own, Rao’s, Prego and Trader Joe’s) in a previous article, but when I checked out those brands, I had trouble determining if they were gluten-free. Some food manufacturers don’t post gluten-free information on their websites. This makes it tough to know if they’re a safe choice or not. As you may know, wading through websites for this kind of info can be verrry frustrating.
Newman’s Own does say all their pasta sauces are gluten-free, so if you’re looking for a quick-fix at home, you might try them. That said, even if the label says it’s “gluten-free,” there is no guarantee because "gluten-free" is not an USDA regulated term. While the manufacturer may use gluten-free ingredients, there could be cross-contamination in the processing plant. If you’re on a gluten-free diet for medical reasons, the safest bet is to make your own.
2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning (or a mix of oregano, basil and rosemary)
Pulse the mushrooms in a food processor until they are the size of grains of rice. Thoroughly mix up meatball ingredients with your hands. Don’t worry -- all of the mushrooms can be worked into the ground beef. Shape the mixture into 18 meatballs.
Pour marinara sauce in a large sauté pan with a lid. Bring to a low simmer. Gently place meatballs in a single layer in the sauce. Cover and simmer, checking after 10 minutes to make sure the meatballs are not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti according to package directions. Drain spaghetti and place on dinner plate. Top with 3 meatballs and sauce. Garnish with Parmesan cheese, if desired.
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Linda Simon is a registered dietitian, personal chef, gluten-free blogger, and owner of Kitchen Therapy. Helping you overcome your gluten free kitchen issues.