Column Reprint: Shirataki

Pasta and I parted ways a long time ago. The traditional white flour pasta is nearly devoid of vitamins and minerals, low in protein, and way too carb-heavy for me. Whole wheat pasta is modestly better, with a little more fiber and a few more nutrients, but it’s still awfully rough on my blood sugar. The low carb soy “pastas” that showed up a few years back were expensive and nasty.

But there is one truly low carb pasta that has won a regular place on my table. It’s a Japanese noodle called “shirataki.” Made of fiber from the konjac plant (also called glucomannan, and often erroneously referred to as a “yam”) these noodles can be found in the refrigerator case at Asian markets and some health food stores. They can also be ordered online.

There are two types of shirataki: the traditional variety, made just of konjac fiber, and tofu shirataki, which combine konjac with tofu. Both varieties of shirataki are very low in both carbs and calories. Better yet, the soluble konjac fiber appears to have health benefits, lowering cholesterol and dampening blood sugar swings. Capsules of konjac fiber have long been sold as a diet aid.

A few things to know about shirataki:

* Both traditional and tofu shirataki come in a liquid-filled pouch. The liquid smells fishy, but don’t be put off by this. Dump your shirataki into a strainer and rinse well. Now soak for a few
minutes, either in water or –– my preference –– in broth. Treated this way, I have not detected any fish flavor in my finished shirataki dishes.

* For some reason, shirataki noodles are long. Really long. Snip across the mass of them a few times with your kitchen shears to make them more manageable.

* As an imported specialty product, shirataki are not dirt cheap. I’ve been paying $1.50 for an 8-ounce pouch. That’s a lot more expensive than generic elbow noodles! Shirataki will not work as a cheap “filler” food. Instead, they’re a nutritionally superior option.

* Unopened and refrigerated, shirataki will keep up to a year. So if you find a good buy, stock up.

* Both varieties of shirataki are very bland on their own. They need a flavorful sauce or soup to make them really tasty.

* Traditional shirataki have two grams of carbohydrate per serving, and both those grams are fiber –– NO usable carbs –– and 0 calories. Around here we call them “Nothing Noodles.” Skinny like spaghetti (but a lot longer!) traditional shirataki are otherwise different from Italian pasta. They’’re clear, with a gelatinous texture. Traditional shirataki are excellent in Asian dishes, such as a ramen-style soup, sesame noodles, or a cold noodle salad. However, they’re too –– well, Asian –– to go well with an Italian tomato sauce or Alfredo sauce.

* Tofu shirataki have a big 20 calories and 3 grams of carb per serving, with 2 grams of fiber, for a usable carb count of 1. They have a look and texture much more similar to the pasta we all know and love. Tofu shirataki come both long-skinny and in a wider “fettuccine” version. I find the fettuccine width more versatile, but I have both in my fridge. I’ve tried tofu shirataki with cheese sauce, Alfredo sauce, and tomato-based spaghetti sauce, and also as a “bed of noodles” with other dishes. I think I’ll try tuna casserole next! They’’d be good in chicken noodle soup, too.

(NOTE: I have since tried shirataki in tuna noodle casserole, and it was awesome.)

Here’’s my favorite shirataki dish so far.

Blue Cheese -Walnut-Pesto Chicken with Noodles

16 ounces fettuccine-style tofu shirataki
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon butter, divided
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/4 cup diced onion
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 cup half and half
2 tablespoons pesto sauce
5 1/2 ounces crumbled blue cheese (I can buy a tub just this size at my grocery.)

Open shirataki, dump into a strainer, and rinse. Put in a small saucepan and stir in the chicken broth. Let this sit while you prepare the rest of the dish.

Melt a teaspoon of your butter in a small skillet over medium-low heat, and stir your walnuts in it until they smell toasty. Remove from heat and set aside.

Cut your chicken into 1/2" chunks, dice your onions, and crush your garlic. Melt the rest of your butter in your big, heavy skillet over medium heat, and start the chicken and onions sauteing in it.

Put that saucepan of shirataki over medium-low heat, to warm.

When all the pink is gone from your chicken, and the onion is translucent, stir in the garlic, half- and-half, and pesto. Now add all but a couple of tablespoons of the blue cheese. Stir until the
cheese is melted and the sauce is thick.

Using a tongs or slotted spoon, lift the noodles out of their broth and pile on three plates or in two bowls. Divide the chicken mixture and sauce between them. Top each with a third of the reserved blue cheese and walnuts, and serve.

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3 servings, each with: 456 Calories; 36g Fat; 27g Protein; 6g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber

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