A Healthy Side of Pasta

Whole-wheat and gluten-free noodles take hold in foodservice operations.

By Pamela Parseghian, Contributing Food Writer

UC Berkeley's seafood salad with rice noodles.

Whole-wheat and gluten-free pastas are being added to menus as diners request options that are healthier or meet their dietary restrictions. At the same time, chefs are also upgrading classic pasta dishes and introducing ethnic choices to make new noodles a hit with all types of customers.

Gluten-free diets are on the rise at the University of California at Berkeley, according to Ida Shen, associate director of culinary for Cal Dining. Requests for foods made without wheat products come from about 5% of students, Shen notes. As a result, many noodle dishes are often made with substitutes like cellophane rice noodles. These include pho soup, which is very popular with students, about half of whom are Asian, and a seafood pomelo and avocado salad that is available on the university’s catering menu.

In the seafood salad, the noodles are briefly blanched with hot oil and seasoned with a puréed scallion sauce. Shen says she has used both dry and fresh rice noodles for the salad but says fresh pasta cooks more evenly.

Shen also gets authentic with a ramen bar that’s offered every other week. She sources frozen ramen from Japan for use on the bar, which was introduced about a year ago, “even though it has a really horrible carbon footprint,” she says.

“We chose the ramen for the texture and the fact that it holds up well after cooking,” Shen says. “In our operations we can’t really have any type of noodle or pasta that loses integrity of texture right after cooking. It should still be slippery and firm after cooking, holding and serving.”

To help offset some of that footprint, Shen pairs the ramen with locally sourced ingredients such as bean sprouts, carrots and spinach. Other additions offered year-round include organic eggs raised locally and an organic tofu made by a local supplier.

For non-Asian gluten-free dishes, Shen has brought in a brown rice noodle that she says is similar to an Italian pasta, so it pairs well with a tomato sauce. “Asian rice noodles don’t taste so good with tomato sauce,” she explains.

Student choice: “We have a very ambitious program for celiacs,” says Ralph Coughenour, director of culinary services at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “I seem to have about 70 students who have a gluten intolerance, but I’m not sure if [gluten-free dining is] the new Atkins. We do an average of 17,000 meals a day,” so gluten-free dishes still remain a small portion of menu requests.

Nevertheless, for students with celiac disease, Coughenour sets up an area of the kitchen that is used exclusively to prepare gluten-free foods. He offers rice noodles as a substitute for regular pasta for those diners.  

 “It’s still classical stuff—lasagna, seafood sauces,” that students prefer, Coughenour says. “We do a lobster mac and cheese and [students] kill it. They line up for it.”

The college students crave anything with seafood, Coughenour adds, especially clams, scampi and lobster, which are often sourced locally. To keep costs down, Coughenour minces lobster claw meat before adding it to macaroni and cheese.

“If you chop the lobster real fine, it goes a long way,” Coughenour says. He mixes about  one and a half pounds of seafood for every 35 servings. Pasta is generally a low-cost menu option, he adds.

During the summer, younger kids attending sports camps at the university prefer spaghetti. To make his standard tomato sauce more healthful, Coughenour adds carrot purée as a sweetener instead of sugar. He says his carrot tomato sauce beat out a bottled sauce made with sugar that tasters thought they preferred. The new sauce is now UNH’s standard.

The whole-grain battle: Finding a whole-grain pasta that students liked to eat was a challenge at Collier County Public Schools in Florida, according to Dawn Houser, director of nutrition for the district.

“After much disappointment, we found a whole-grain pasta that satisfies our criteria,” says Houser. “The flavor is better, it is not as dark—if the pasta is too dark, it puts off the students right there—and it holds up on a steam table line better than any other sampled product.”

Cost, flavor and color are second to texture and how a pasta holds, she adds. Houser serves pasta in three kinds of macaroni and cheese, including a new Buffalo style and a Mexican version with taco meat and salsa. Spaghetti topped with marinara sauce and dark meat chicken meatballs is also served.

A word of caution: Jaime Palenque, executive chef at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Ariz., serves rice noodles on a miso bar and Mongolian grill. For the Mongolian grill, customers pick from an array of vegetables and meat and udon noodles. Then Palenque’s staff prepares the dishes to order. On the miso soup bar, cellophane rice noodles, spinach, tofu and Asian mushrooms are among the offerings. Hot miso broth is poured over all customer selections.

Because dishes at both stations are made with rice noodles, they could be considered gluten free. But Palenque won’t market them as such to people who are following a strict celiac diet.

“If you don’t have the right kitchen and you don’t separate things the right way, you can have cross contamination,” Palenque warns.