Gluten-free buckwheat goes against the grain

Special To The Washington PostJuly 2, 2013 

With all the hype about vegetarian and gluten-free diets, it is surprising there isn't more discussion about buckwheat, a grain substitute that, despite its name, is naturally gluten-free.

Buckwheat is loaded with health benefits. Similar to whole grains, it is a great source of heart-healthy fiber, which helps keep you full longer. It also provides hunger-satisfying protein without any of the cholesterol or saturated fat that animal protein contains. Plus, it offers eight essential amino acids, making this complete protein a smart nutritional choice for vegetarians.

Other buckwheat benefits include fatigue-fighting iron, bone-healthy calcium and immune system-boosting manganese, magnesium, copper and zinc. Buckwheat is also a good source of a powerful flavonoid, rutin, which has been shown to protect against blood clots. It also contains omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.

Whole buckwheat flour can be made into a spaghetti-like noodle called a soba noodle, which can be served hot or cold. Although similar in shape to spaghetti, it won't make you feel as heavy or stuffed after you eat it. It has a hearty, earthy taste, making it a good choice if you are looking for some noodle diversity in your next meal.

Buckwheat can be enjoyed in a variety of ways beyond soba noodles. Buckwheat flour makes great crepes or pancakes. Raw buckwheat groats can be used in homemade granola, and they work well for those keeping a raw food diet. The whole buckwheat kernel can be used as a substitute for cracked wheat or couscous (for instance, in a buckwheat tabbouleh). And toasted buckwheat groats, generally known as kasha, can be used as a breakfast cereal or pilaf. It also works well added to soups, casseroles and stuffings.

Not all soba noodles are created equal. Many packaged varieties also contain wheat flour, so be sure to read the ingredients on the label. Look for 100 percent buckwheat and a gluten-free or allergy label if you follow a gluten-free diet.

Like grains, there are options to buy whole buckwheat and white buckwheat. Choose the whole variety, as it contains more nutrients.

The accompanying chilled soba noodle recipe is perfect for a hot summer day. It is an incredibly light and refreshing gluten-free dish that will fill you up without making you uncomfortable. With all the nutrition benefits of buckwheat, the soba noodles are then paired with fresh shrimp and vegetables to round out this well-balanced meal. The dressing brings it all together: It is light and flavorful with a touch of sweetness to balance out buckwheat's nutty taste. You can have fun with this recipe and add in other vegetables such as sugar snap peas, snow peas, bell peppers, cucumbers, mushrooms or shredded carrots.

Chilled Sesame Soba Noodles With Shrimp and Avocado

For the salad

1/2 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for the cooking water

8 ounces dried buckwheat soba noodles (be sure the soba noodles you use here are 100 percent buckwheat, to make sure they are gluten-free and possess the desired nutrition and texture)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

20 large raw (31-35 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

2 cups coarsely chopped romaine lettuce

1 cup grape tomatoes, each cut in half

Flesh of 1/2 ripe avocado, cut into small chunks

4 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into1/4-inch pieces

1/4 cup diced red onion

1/4 cup rinsed and coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, for garnish

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, for garnish

For the dressing

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar

Juice of 1 or 2 limes

2 teaspoons agave syrup

2 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste

For the salad: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and the soba noodles. Most packages of buckwheat soba call for 8 minutes of cooking, but that will create gummy, mushy noodles. Start testing after 4 minutes and have a colander ready to drain them a minute later. Drain and rinse under cool water; drain again.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the shrimp and season with the 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the pepper; cook for 5 to 10 minutes, turning them as needed, until they are pink and opaque. Remove from the heat.

Combine the lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, scallions and red onion in mixing bowl. Add the noodles and shrimp; toss to incorporate.

For the dressing: Combine the oil, vinegar, lime juice (to taste), agave syrup, garlic, sesame seeds, salt and pepper in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake to form an emulsified dressing. Pour over the lettuce mixture and toss to coat evenly. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Divide the salad mixture among individual bowls. Garnish with cilantro and sesame seeds. Serve right away. Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition per serving: 490 calories, 16 g protein, 55 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 610 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar

-- From Elaine Gordon

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