The Pasta Component

By combining ‘wholesome’ with ‘indulgent’ ingredients—and providing more varied seasoning for customization—operators are re-invigorating the comfort pasta classics, from bubbling crocks to glam gnocchi.

The low-carb, no-carb diet fads have come and gone—and pasta’s popularity appears to be untarnished. Those who know about such things as glycemic index, or GI, know that pasta has a low one, in some instances of about 41, and therefore does not cause a spike in blood sugar levels. (GI is a measure of carbs based on the immediate effect on blood sugar levels; the slower the blood glucose absorption, the longer-lasting the energy boost to both the brain and the body.)

As a greater understanding of the healthful benefits of the Mediterranean style of eating has filtered down to the public at large, customers have become increasingly aware that pasta can be a perfectly fine component of their diets as long as what is added to the dish is healthful, too. Of course, portion size—as with all food—is a relevant factor, as well.

From classic to trendy: In developing new concepts and recipes for a program to be launched by Sodexho in January, national executive chef Richard Arakelian, senior director of brand development, is putting the emphasis on health and wellness. He’s focusing on white whole-wheat and multi-grain pastas while aiming to transform old classics into new and trendy items.

“White (whole-)wheat pasta doesn’t have as much of a nutty wheat flavor—it’s more like regular durum wheat,” Arakelian says. “And, since people are demanding the Barilla Plus product (a multi-grain pasta that contains omega-3 fatty acids), we’re offering it. Now, we are developing recipes around the (whole-)wheat pastas and regular durum wheat product.”

Arakelian is continuing to develop pasta recipes featuring creamy pestos, roasted artichokes, roasted Brussels sprouts, pancetta and chicken. He’s also incorporating rich, sharper cheeses such as Pecorino Romano versus straight Parmesan, in an effort “to bring full-body and full-flavor ingredients into play,” he points out.

“People are also becoming more accepting of fresh herbs, especially tarragon, perhaps with roasted vegetables, sherry and lemon. Basically, we’re using more wholesome and indulgent ingredients—it’s all about balance.”

As taste-testing goes forward for both whole-wheat and multi-grain pasta products, filled raviolis, tortellinis and tortellonis (the longer version) continue to be offered. Wild mushroom–filled garlic ravioli and roasted pumpkin– or butternut squash–filled ravioli, prepared with shiitake mushrooms, peas, sherry, garlic, chicken stock plus fresh flat parsley and tarragon, are among the current offerings. But Arakelian admits they’re a bit too labor-intensive to be made in-house from scratch.

Ravioli nouveau: “We worked with a manufacturer to make them very delicate; our pumpkin is not like pumpkin pie with cinnamon or nutmeg flavor,” he points out. “At a cook-to-order station, the cook gives a choice of other ingredients and the customer could mix and match so they have control, but we guide the customer. They might want Pecorino cheese, roasted shallots or smoked bacon on top for crackle and crunch, or arugula or broccoli rabe to customize the dish. We’ll also provide a take-home recipe card utilizing a ravioli, for example, to serve a family of four to six.”

Pasta is featured as a central component in one of several Meal Kit concepts Sodexho is currently testing at one business-and-industry account in New England and at another in California. In this approach to revitalize home-meal replacement, Arakelian believes the kits, containing pre-cooked pastas, sauce and garnish to expedite the completion of a finished meal within 20 minutes, will appeal to today’s time-stressed employees.

Omega-3 interest: For now, Justin Betzer, executive chef at Ericsson (formerly Marconi), a Parkhurst Dining Services account in Warrendale, Penn., is closely watching the acceptance level of the new pasta with protein and omega-3s and is looking to stock it through his purveyors. “Now, we’re really pushing the Barilla Plus pasta as a balanced meal without chicken or beans,” Betzer says. “The product is growing in contract management locations in schools, colleges and B&I because it’s complete simply tossed with a bit of olive or peanut oil. We provide it as an option now, but we’re still buying it on our own.”

For his popular cook-to-order pasta station, Betzer offers a whole-wheat pasta along with a regular pasta each day. Blanched and chilled, it’s reheated and tossed with the customer’s choice of items.

‘Whole’ pizza: With pizza offered at the same station as pasta, the growing customer interest in whole-wheat pasta now encompasses pizza, as well. In fact, whole-wheat pizza dough is being incorporated into several new fast-selling items. “We’re using whole-wheat pizza dough to make a flat-bread pizza,” Betzer says. “We roll out the dough as thin as we can, throw it on the grill, then turn it so both sides get grill marks. We make an 18-inch pie and cut it into sixths to sell at $2.25 per slice.”

Recently, the whole-wheat pizza dough has been utilized in the production of wheat-flavored cinnamon rolls as well as orange-flavored varieties. “I’ve been trying to push the idea that we use more healthful wheat dough,” Betzer explains. “It opens (customers’) eyes to what they’re not used to.”

Serving more than 32,400 students, faculty and staff at the University of New Mexico (UNM), operations manager Carol Scott can tell you that at this Aramark account, cooked-to-order pasta for lunch or dinner is a favorite at several campus venues including La Posada. The Real Food On Campus (an Aramark concept) residential meal membership program allows students to choose fresh items from the station and give them to the sauté cook, who cooks it with the student’s choice of sauce.

“Diced and blanched fresh vegetables are tossed in front of the customer and sautéed with very little olive oil,” Scott reports. “The station provides a wide array of choices, especially for our many vegetarians. Chicken is the favorite protein with beef menued about twice a week, but tofu is always available,” Scott says.

Pasta varieties as well as protein options are changed from lunch to dinner, but no matter the day part, fettuccine and spaghetti are not prepared since their length makes them difficult to sauté. For consistency and portion control, about six ounces of maccheroni, penne, bow ties or other “short” pasta is easily portioned out with spoodles by the sauté cook, who then adds three ounces of a vegetable-based marinara or Alfredo sauce, with pesto as a third option twice a week.

Choice positions: “This is a generation of customization, and we in the dining hall try very hard to make sure students see they have an impact on what goes on their plate,” Scott asserts. “A bread station along with a salad bar are set up near the sauté station, and they can choose an item from the salad bar to be sautéed with their pasta. By positioning stations close by, it gives them extra choices they may not have noticed before. This past year, we’ve brought in different seasonings such as oregano, crushed red pepper, garlic, etc.”

Scott admits that the popularity of the pasta station depends in good measure upon the competition posed by other items offered that day. If, for example, students first see a grilled chicken Caesar wrap with Parmesan and lettuce in the back servery, they may choose that instead, with perhaps a side of pasta, or pasta for dinner. “But I do think we humans reach back for those things Mom made—things that make us feel good—and pasta is one of them,” she adds.

At UNM, additional pasta dishes are available elsewhere in the servery. These include a rotation of three to five types of lasagna, baked ziti and vegetarian baked ziti, chicken parmigiana and spaghetti and meatballs.

When a new Metz & Associates account opens, corporate chef Thom Boehm, CEC, CCE, FMP, is usually on the scene, whether it’s a school, such as recently opened Bethel Park High School in Pittsburgh, or a college or B&I location. With 20 years of experience behind him as a culinary instructor, Boehm knows that “any comfort food sells—whatever they’re used to.”

Not only does pasta fit the parameter, but a baked pasta is an even greater “throwback,” he believes. “There’s nothing like a baked ziti. You can keep it light, get the flavor in, and it’s easier from a volume perspective to do pans of this stuff. For example, in a college or high school, when it hits lunch, there can be 1,800 kids to be fed, in three groups of 600—and they only have 25 minutes to eat. By doing it in the trays, we can do the volume.”

Pasta in a crock: But for B&I locations, Boehm likes the idea of preparing individual crocks of baked ziti or other pasta. In one account, employees can e-mail in their lunch order and a crock can be ready, fresh from the oven, when they come down. Marinated grilled vegetables—done only about half way, just enough to get the grilled flavor—tossed with pasta then topped with Parmesan and baked off, is one of his favorite crock creations since he finds the marinade from the vegetables creates a very light sauce of its own. “We also do a baked ziti with tomato sauce, sausage, peppers and onions,” Boehm says. “There’s not a whole lot of pasta there if dieters are concerned about carbs.”

Currently, Boehm is testing recipes utilizing whole-grain pasta and seeking B&I customer feedback. “It’s going to be grainier with a bit of coarseness to it,” he says. “We put out a little sign indicating that it will be a different texture. If you let them know ahead of time, they’ll accept it.”

While on the one hand reviving interest in baked pasta, Boehm is also offering cold pastas with increasing frequency and fully expects their growing popularity will continue through the winter. At Gannon University in Erie, Penn., for example, Boehm finds that a pre-made cold pasta salad with salmon or chicken is now a solid seller.

“I’ve been grilling vegetables, cooling them down, mixing with pasta and serving it (all) as a cold salad,” he says. “For variety, you change the vegetables and the marinade. Most often, it’s pre-plated without protein, although we could add the protein. Seafood goes especially well with (it).”

Adding interest: To keep the Pastabilities Corner dynamic at 500-bed Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton, Ohio, chef Randy Petersen, CEC, runs it for a full week each month for both the first and second shifts. Each day that week, the offer includes four types of pasta, three sauces, three salads and three sandwiches, plus an array of toppings.

“Pastabilities has been up and running for the past eight months with the same selections each day of the week,” he reports. “To keep the concept fresh, we started offering a daily special about three months ago. Specials include vegetarian lasagna, Southwestern lasagna, traditional meat lasagna, baked ziti, shrimp ravioli or chicken parmigiana, all assembled to order. Sales are pretty strong through the whole week with about 250 guests going through each day.”

Of the pasta specials, chicken parmigiana—menued only at Pastabilities—is the most popular; about a dozen at a time are fried back of house, then topped with “production kitchen sauce” prepared at the central production facility located at nearby Miami Valley Hospital. (The two are network partners.)

During weeks without Pastabilities options, customers seeking such choices might find various lasagnas, Swedish meatballs with egg noodles, baked ziti, or perhaps the famous Johnny Marzetti casserole—a hearty macaroni-based dish with meat sauce and shredded Jack cheese—that also rotates through the four-week cycle menu.

Pre-cooked advantage: Petersen tried a low-carb pasta in the past, but found the texture was not the same as what his customers were used to. Now he’s found a pre-cooked pasta and is pleased with the results. “Our supplier, Gordon Food Service, just came out with a pre-cooked pasta under its own label that we’re using in Pastabilities,” he says. “There are four varieties—fettuccine, penne, rigatoni and spaghetti—packed in four 10-pound bags and with a shelf life of up to 30 days. At this point, we’re trying to update the nutritional information we have on our Web site; all the information we get from the central production kitchen is posted but we’re still working on getting the Gordon information onto the site.”

The seven-day patient menu at Good Samaritan offers three pasta selections including spaghetti with meat sauce, Swedish meatballs with egg noodles, and chicken with noodles.


Bon Appetit Puts Pasta Creativity to the Test

Fort Worth, Tex.—The more than 200 daily lunchtime customers who dine Tuesdays through Sundays at the Modern Art Museum here find at least one pasta dish menued, no matter which of the seasonal menus is in place. And, thanks to the efforts of Dena Peterson, executive chef at this Bon Appetit Management Company account, each is sure to be unique.

Gnocchi, for example, is dressed up with herbed chive and dill, then enrobed in an heirloom tomato butter sauce. “Every week I go to our local Farmers Market so all our zucchini, banana peppers or whatever are fresh, local and seasonal,” Peterson says. “For the gnocchi with heirloom tomato butter sauce, I typically use a soup plate and top the sautéed julienned vegetables with shaved Grana Pandano cheese.”

RAFT to the future: During August, Bon Appetit, in conjunction with Slow Food, held a Chef’s Challenge in San Francisco as part of a project for Reviving America’s Food Traditions (RAFT). Challenged to create an entrée utilizing several types of beans or heirloom meats, Peterson—who has been with Bon Appetit, and at the Modern, for the past three years—prepared a cilantro pasta for the judges.

“I did ravioli with an heirloom bean—you could substitute pinto beans or black beans,” she points out. “I cooked them with bacon, garlic, onion and jalapeños. After draining them, I mashed them all together and added aged Monterey Jack cheese, which is similar to Parmesan in consistency. I made a fresh cilantro pasta and filled it with the bean and cheese mixture, topping it with chorizo-braised pulled pork. Finally, I flash-fried julienned onions and squash blossoms—also cut into strips—dipped in a flour and cornstarch breading to place as (an additional) garnish. And, I was first runner-up!”

This Southwestern slant on ravioli can be simplified by using wonton wrappers instead of fresh ravioli, she adds.