And there's a world of noodles beyond the ubiquitous Italian version we know as pasta. From soba to udon to bean thread, Asian-style noodles in particular are taking up more space on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus today.
Noodles are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, the healthiest, most energy-sustaining form of the body's main fuel. That's why marathon carbo-load dinners are usually pasta parties.
Like with many foods, noodles can be healthy or unhealthy depending on how they're prepared. Bathe them in cream and pile on the cheese, and you'll end up with an artery-clogging meal akin to eating a double Quarter Pounder. But throw them in the wok for a light turn with a little peanut oil and some veggies, and you'll be treating yourself to a tasty meal you can feel good about.
To boost the healthy factor and reduce calories, skip cream and butter sauces and stick to lower-fat options such as tomato-based sauces, olive or sesame oil, grilled veggies, seafood, beans and lean meats. Noodles are also a nutritious addition to soups and salads.
Soba noodlesFrom left: bean thread, udon,
pasta, rice and soba noodles.
Native to Japan, protein-rich soba noodles are made from wheat flour and buckwheat flour, which gives them a nutty flavor and coarse texture. This flat, thin, brownish-colored noodle comes in several varieties including jinenjo, made with wild yam flour; cha, with tea leaves; and mugi, with mugwort. Soba noodles are used in a variety of Asian dishes and, like other Japanese noodles, can be served hot or cold.
The most common hot dish is kake soba or "soba in broth," topped with sliced green onions. A popular way to serve them cold is mori soba, served with a chilled dipping sauce of dashi (a soup stock), mirin (rice wine), soy sauce and a touch of wasabi.
Be careful not to overcook soba noodles. Just eight to 10 minutes in boiling water should give them the texture they need. After cooking, drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Try them as a substitute for fettuccine or linguine.
1/2 cup cooked: 94 calories, 4.8 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrate, 0.1 grams fat, 0 grams fiber
Made with rice flour, these Chinese noodles have a neutral taste that makes them perfect for robust flavored dishes. Popular in Thailand, rice noodles are used for signature dishes such as Pad Thai, and the different varieties are also found in Asian soups, spring rolls, cold salads and stir-fries.
They can be thick or very thin and are sold both dried and fresh under names such as "thin rice sticks," "rice vermicelli" or "rice stick noodles." The dried version is coiled in plastic bags, either thread-thin or spaghetti-like in thickness. The fresh versions come in wide sheets for making dumplings or are cut into three-quarter-inch-wide ribbons.
Cooking depends on type and thickness, so check the directions on the package. In general, you'll first soak the noodles in hot water for 15 to 20 minutes until they soften. Thinner noodles are boiled for three to five minutes, and the thicker ones for seven to nine minutes. Perfect for soups or stir-fries.
1/2 cup cooked: 96 calories, 0.8 grams protein, 21.9 grams carbohydrate, 0.2 grams fat, 0.9 grams fiber
These thick, white Japanese noodles, similar to spaghetti, are made from wheat flour and come fresh, dried or pre-cooked. Generally, the fresh version is thick and square, and the dried is flat and round.
Udon noodles are often used in hot dishes such as soups, usually with a soy sauce-based broth, and stews, or served cold with a dipping sauce. These versatile noodles go well with a variety of fish, meats and vegetables for delicious stir-fries.
For fresh udon noodles: Cook them in boiling water for two to four minutes. For dried noodles: Add them to boiling water, and when the water returns to boil, add a cup of cold water. When it boils again, add another cup of cold water. Repeat this process two to three times until the noodles are tender but slightly firm.
To prepare precooked noodles, place them in a heatproof bowl, pour boiling water over them and carefully separate the noodles. Then rinse them with cold water and drain.
1/2 cup cooked: 115 calories, 3 grams protein, 23 grams carbohydrate, 0.6 grams fat, 0.1 grams fiber
Bean thread noodles
Chinese bean thread noodles are also known as cellophane, slippery or mung bean vermicelli, or glass noodles. These transparent, chewy, thin noodles are made from the starch of mung beans and are used in a variety of Asian dishes, like soups and stir-fries, as well as deep-fried as a salad topping.
They are available dried, packaged in bundles. The bean thread noodle is almost flavorless, so it easily absorbs flavors of other foods.
Soak noodles in hot water for about 15 minutes, depending on thickness, until they are soft and transparent. Drain and boil the noodles in water a few minutes until tender (skip this step if you're going to cook them in a soup or stir-fry). Rinse in cold water and drain.
1/2 cup cooked: 246 calories, 0.1 grams protein, 60 grams carbohydrate, 0.1 grams fat, 0.4 grams fiber
Pasta, the Italian word for "paste," is made from flour and water. Most pasta in the United States is made from semolina flour, ground from durum wheat, and sold dry. Whereas, pasta sold fresh usually contains whole eggs, giving it a higher moisture content and softer consistency.
Almost 80 percent of the calories in spaghetti and similar pastas come from complex carbohydrates with the remaining calories from protein. American pasta products are enriched with B vitamins (though, some of it is lost in the cooking) and are also a good source of iron. Whole wheat pasta is higher in fiber than semolina pasta and has a more robust flavor.
The two main rules for cooking perfect pasta: Use plenty of water (at least one quart of water for every four ounces of pasta) and don't overcook it. Cook in an uncovered pot and be sure the water is boiling vigorously before adding the pasta. As a rule, one ounce of dried pasta will yield about a half cup of cooked pasta. Cooked pasta should be al dente, tender but firm to the bite.
Semolina, 1/2 cup cooked: 95 calories, 3 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrate, 0.5 grams fat, 1 gram fiber
Whole wheat 1/2 cup cooked: 87 calories, 3.5 grams protein, 18.5 grams carbohydrate, 0.4 grams fat, 3 grams fiber
Kimberly A. Tessmer, R.D., L.D., specializes in weight management and medical nutrition therapy and is the author of The Everything Nutrition Book (Adams Media, 2003), Gluten Free For A Healthy Life (Career Press, 2003) and The Everything Pregnancy Nutrition Book (Adams Media, 2005). Visit her Web site at nutrifocus.net.