The Possibilities of Pasta
Whole-wheat varieties of pasta are allowing operators to menu the grain as a healthy option.
Whole-wheat varieties of pasta are allowing operators to menu the grain as a healthy option. Today’s pasta dishes are more flavorful, stylish and healthful than ever before, according to several non-commercial operators. Variations on ethnic noodle bowls, pasta salads and baked casserole-type entrées are being presented not only as comfort food, but also as restaurant-quality entrées worth getting excited about.
Additionally, pasta is being offered as a healthy option as chefs experiment with whole-wheat and brown rice pastas, gluten-free noodles and whole-grain spaghetti.
“Pasta is, of course, very popular,” says Robert Mayberry, executive chef at the University of Texas in Austin. “Up until recently we only had the most traditional types on the menu, but we’ve started offering pastas made with egg whites and lentils and also brown rice penne, which is really quite good. We’re also doing whole-wheat grain pasta.”
Mayberry says the students love a number of new pasta dishes he has been testing and plans to incorporate onto the menu in the spring. They include a tomato and red pepper pasta salad served over whole-grain rotini; a chicken fajita salad, also served over whole-grain rotini; and a baked whole-grain penne, cheese and marinara casserole.
The chef also noted that the university’s all-you-can eat dining facility recently was remodeled and now features a cooked-to-order pasta station. About 400 students pass through it at any given meal period.
“We’re offering more Italian and Asian pasta dishes, like udon and pho noodle bowls,” he says, “and we also do a lot of European-style pastas. We give the students a choice of two different pastas, proteins such as tofu, chicken or beef, and sauté it with vegetables in a little garlic and oil. Then they get a choice of two types of sauces: red or basil cream. The chef then tosses it all together and serves it to the student. There’s also a topping bar at the end of the line that features items like Parmesan cheese, green onions and cracked black pepper. It’s a complete meal.”
Mayberry says pasta is well liked by chefs, too.
“It is fairly easy to make and relatively inexpensive,” he says. “I really like the variety of shapes and the textures you can achieve. From orzo to angel hair to macaroni, it allows you a lot of versatility.”
Making pasta healthy: For Dr. Robert Lewis, director of nutrition services for the El Monte (Calif.) School District, pasta has been a great addition at 14 of his schools, after fried foods were removed from the menus more than a year ago. The district, which has battled an obesity epidemic for years, is committed to serving more healthful items that are lower in fat and sugar to its young students, Lewis says, and serving whole-grain pasta is a part of that initiative.
“We have a macaroni and cheese that [the students] love and they don’t know it, but it’s whole grain,” Lewis says. “Plus, it’s made with low-fat cheese. It’s a big hit every day. We’ve also served them chicken rotini Alfredo, which is low fat, and we served a dish created by [TV personality] Rachael Ray called yakitori chicken with noodles. We use whole-wheat angel hair pasta and top it with chicken that is flavored with onions, ginger and soy sauce. It is served with broccoli and snow peas in a pineapple juice flavored mixture.”
Another popular item at Lewis’ schools is a chef salad made with pasta, turkey cubes, mozzarella, cucumbers, sliced tomatoes and two different lettuces, which is tossed in an Italian dressing.
“It’s good looking,” he says. “You have to make it exciting, as if they’re going out with their parents to dine.”
He noted that serving pasta has great value healthwise and monetarily.
“You can’t beat it,” he says. “Some of these dishes have 7 grams of fiber, are low in cholesterol and low in fat and sugar. And they probably range [in cost] between 65 cents and 70 cents each, depending on the ingredients used.”
Danny Chavez, district chef for Eurest Dining Services in Phoenix, says he uses whole-grain pastas in many salads and entrées as an alternative to potatoes.
“It’s a great substitute for a starch and holds up well,” he says. “It’s durable and readily available.”
Chavez says one of his most popular menu items is fideo, a Spanish pasta dish made with angel hair pasta broken into one-inch pieces and browned. It’s served in a sauce made of chicken or vegetable stock, Roma tomatoes, garlic and onion. The dish is garnished with avocado and cilantro.
“It’s a simple dish, served with greens, a great comfort food for our Latin customers,” he says.