If you’re like the majority of operators today, you’re adding more whole grain menu items to please customers keen on new flavor experiences and healthier eating.
In fact, from 2008 through 2012, whole grains in casual dining restaurants rose by 105.8 percent, in fast-casual restaurants by 68.4 percent and in fine/upscale/gourmet operations by 42.3 percent, according to Mintel Menu Insights. Furthermore, 78 percent of American consumers ate more whole grain products in 2012, according to the 2013 IFIC Food & Health Survey,
However, when it comes to whole grain pasta, perhaps you have noticed that the familiar bright marinara sauces and delicate cream sauces that are so popular with traditional semolina pasta just don’t match as well with whole grains. Fortunately, by heeding a few simple rules of thumb, it is easy to create appealing, on-trend flavor pairings with whole grain pasta.
Look for inspiration to the culinary traditions of Northern Italy, where whole grain pastas are typically matched with flavorful regional ingredients like Parmigiano-Reggiano and other aged cow’s milk cheeses, porcini mushrooms, pork sausages, cured hams and seasonal vegetables, declares Lorenzo Boni, executive chef of Barilla America, who grew up in Bologna.
“Although Barilla Whole Grain pasta has a mild, neutral flavor profile thanks to its blend of whole grain wheat and semolina, whole grain pastas in general can bring slightly bitter, nutty and grainy flavor notes from the wheat bran,” says Boni.
Thus the lively, acidic tomato sauces common on American menus often clash with whole grain. “You end up highlighting the bitter notes and overwhelming the nuttiness and sweetness,” Boni says. Nor are delicate, dairy-based sauces good matches, because they often lack the character and intensity to balance whole grains.
It is advisable to pair whole grain pasta with sauces that have a slight sweetness or a savory, umami character that either complements or covers the nutty nuances, points out Edmondo Sarti, chef/owner of Starbelly restaurant in San Francisco.
Fortunately, the list of ingredients that pair harmoniously with whole grain pasta is long. Included are vegetables with assertive flavors, such as kale, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli rabe, asparagus and brussels sprouts as well as root vegetables with a natural sweetness, such as winter squashes and carrots. Also excellent are mushrooms, particularly wild and exotic types such as morels, porcini and chanterelles, which are meaty and rich in umami. Furthermore, the heat of chilies and crushed red pepper flakes is an appealing counterpoint to whole grain nuttiness.
“All are great for us as chefs to add flavor in general without fat or salt, and they complement whole grains as well,” says Sarti.
Barilla’s Boni advises roasting and caramelizing vegetables and proteins to emphasize their sweetness. Adding a touch of pancetta or bacon to vegetable-rich pastas adds savory or smoky qualities. Whatever you do, Boni warns, do not overcook whole grain pasta, because that shortens its holding time and limits the success of your flavor pairings.
In college and university foodservice, where a generation of students has grown up on global flavors and healthful eating, whole grain pasta is making its mark. For example, at the University of California at Berkeley, Chef Ida Shen, assistant director of culinary for Cal Dining, pairs Barilla Whole Grain pasta with a heartyragùmade with an abundance of vegetables and a butter-based mushroom sauce with ample umami character.
Taking inspiration from the Japanese soba noodle, which is made from buckwheat, Shen tosses Barilla Whole Grain pasta with fermented bean paste, soy sauce or peanut sauceto createsignature noodle dishes.
“Barilla Whole Grain lends itself to a sesame noodle type dressing, with umami, green onions and sesame oil,” says Shen. “Our students don’t think of it as whole grain pasta, but as sesame noodles.”
Another specialty is a take on Chinese-style cold sesame noodles, prepared with tahini or peanut sauce and Barilla Whole Grain pasta. “The peanut and the whole grain pasta, which has a nuttier flavor, work really well together,” says Shen. “We are not trying to mask the flavor, but work with it.”