In the annals of the world’s biggest lies, somewhere in the vicinity of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” and “I was totally against the war in Iraq,” ranks this whopper: “Zucchini noodle recipes will make you forget all about pasta.”
No, when people twirl long green strings of zucchini on their forks, pasta probably will be on the minds of all but the strictest Paleo diet adherents. Of course we all want to eat more vegetables. We apparently just don’t want our plates to look so . . . vegetabley.
That’s why low-carb bloggers and eaters, including diabetics, have longbeen replicating their favorite starchy dishes with vegetable stand-ins. Grated cauliflower resembles rice and can also be baked as a pizza crust. If you squint really hard, a slice of sweet potato can be toast.
And if you use a kitchen device called a spiralizer, you can twist zucchini and squash into fettuccine or linguine noodles. (Or you can use a spaghetti squash – it’s nature’s spiralizer!)
They have a cutesy name, zoodles – or in the United Kingdom, where zucchini are called courgettes, it’s courgetti. They’ve even received the ultimate stamp of celebrity approval: Khloe Kardashian tweeted a recipe for zucchini noodle pad Thai, claiming it was “just as good as pasta.” But without that comparison, it seems we’re less inclined to eat vegetables for vegetables’ sake, no matter how prettily we whittle them down. The war against carbohydrates is one of ascetic virtues, and it cannot be won without replacing our most decadent culinary pleasures.
This year, the category is booming: Searches for cauliflower rice recipes on Pinterest are up 135 percent year over year, and searches for spiralizer recipes are up 264 percent. Google search interest in cauliflower rice increases apace each year, except for the week of Dec. 25 through Jan. 1, when everyone is indulging in holiday treats. (Immediately after, it spikes again: New Year’s resolutions.) Cookbook authors are hopping on the bandwagon, with books such as Martha Rose Shulman’s “Spiralize This!” and Denise Smart’s “Spiralize Now!,” because if anything’s worthy of an exclamation point, it’s tubular vegetables.
But because these food hacks can be a lot of work, grocery stores and home goods manufacturers are rushing to meet consumers’ needs for convenience and novelty – and they’re banking on the idea that the low-carb crowd will pay for the privilege. Trader Joe’s frozen riced cauliflower is flying off the shelves. Wegmans, too, has a house version, and Green Giant is diving into the market. And Whole Foods sells spiralized zucchini and squash and riced cauliflower in its produce section.
“If this gets people to eat more vegetables, and they’re willing to pay for the convenience, it’s a good idea,” said Michelle Tam, author of “Nom Nom Paleo.” At the same time, she admitted that when she first heard about the mainstream Green Giant line jumping on the trend, “I was like, ‘Ugh.’ “
Following the money
Getting people to eat more vegetables is a virtuous goal but, Tam says, probably not the main reason companies are catering to the Paleo crowd. People who are interested in the diet tend to have disposable income and are willing to invest in a new lifestyle.
“The people who go Paleo are just all in,” said Tam. “You’re willing to change your eating habits and your buying habits, you’re prioritizing paying for healthy, sustainable foods.”
Boulder Canyon Foods is introducing four types of frozen riced vegetables – sweet potato, carrot, cauliflower, and broccoli – each available plain or seasoned, in flavors such as caramelized onion or cilantro lime. They looked into zucchini noodles, too, but those are more complicated to produce as a frozen food.
“One of the things we saw going on in the market was that carbs weren’t cool anymore,” said Steve Sklar, senior vice president and general manager of Boulder Canyon. As of last year, sales of dried pasta have fallen 6 percent since 2009 and are projected to continue the decline. “People are just starting to get into this in a packaged-goods convenience category.”
They’re getting into it in the home goods category, too. Oxo’s spiralizers have sold so well, the company plans to introduce two more models this fall.
Mack Mor, senior product engineer at Oxo, said the company was wary of jumping on something too trendy, but after testers tried making zucchini noodles in the Oxo test kitchen, “We were like, ‘Wow, this actually scratches the pasta itch.’ Once we figured out it was something we’d all be happy eating, then we knew that this was something that was going to be around for a while.”
Even though we can make vegetables look like pasta or rice, though, that doesn’t mean we will prefer them over the high-carb version. There are issues of taste and texture: Homemade zucchini noodles can be watery. And then there’s what Tam politely refers to as cauliflower’s sulfurous smell. Social media is less kind: Just search for the phrase “Cauliflower rice smells like farts.”
People might also be turned off by bloggers who experiment with carb swaps to varying degrees of success. One blog recommends hollowing out a cucumber and filling it with lunchmeat and cheese to make a “sub.” Not only is it impractical – won’t the fillings squish out into your lap? – it is the saddest-looking sub you will ever see.
Among the culinary establishment, veggie-starch swaps have not gained the same level of acceptance as gluten-free pasta has. Though popular culture sometimes conflates the low-carb and gluten-free diets, true Paleo or Whole30 diet adherents will not eat gluten-free pasta, which appeals to those with celiac disease.
“I’m more of a purist,” said Masseria chef Nicholas Stefanelli. “Our gluten-free pasta is something that we worked on to try to get the texture and the essence of that dish.” Stefanelli had never tried, or even considered, zucchini noodles.
Vegetable pasta just takes some getting used to, says Tam. And it’s a sneaky way to get more vegetables into your kids’ diets, if you’re into that sort of thing.
“I think it does take time to recalibrate your taste buds to appreciate real whole foods for how they should taste, because you’ve been eating such highly processed and hyper-palatable stuff for so long,” she said. “I know a lot of people who are like, ‘This in no way replicates my pasta Bolognese.’ And I’m like, ‘Of course not. But you’ll feel better.’ “
In developing the spiralizer, Mor became a convert. But he’s not a Paleo adherent. “I can’t eat plain zucchini noodles because it doesn’t make me full enough,” he said. “I like to make some regular pasta and mix it half and half with the zucchini.”
That’s just one of the hurdles zoodles will have to overcome on their quest to become mainstream. There’s evidence that when we replace an unhealthful food with a more nutritious imitation, our brains expect the same level of caloric satisfaction. When we don’t get it, a recent story in the Atlantic reported, we’re likely to eat more of it than we would have eaten of the original version. Or we just prepare it in an unhealthful way – a fact that has not escaped Sklar.
“People say, ‘I’m going to eat better, I’m going to get the better-for-you product,’ but when they are at the store, they get the indulgent product,” he said. Cauliflower rice can be both. “They buy this product and they say, ‘I’m going to do something really good,’ but then they bring it home and say, ‘I’m going to make a pizza out of it.’ “