Pasta possibilities

"We were losing customers on payday so a couple of years ago we started a pasta bar on Fridays. Now I don't dare remove it," says Mary Kimbrough, dir. of nutrition services at St. Paul and Zale Lipshy Univ. Hospitals in Dallas. In fact, the current situation actually "tickles" the foodservice staff, she says. "They see customers who complain about standing in line at a cashier station for two minutes, waiting for 20 minutes to have their pasta finished off."

Although Kimbrough didn't steal the idea directly from a commercial operation, there are myriad opportunities to do so.

Head for the 'pasta' bar: Four sauces, two different kinds of pasta, about a dozen topping selections—if you're looking for a quick dinner and you live in a city with a Wegman's, a Rochester, NY–based specialty supermarket chain, you can always head for their pasta bar—and a lot of people do.

Parboiled pasta is set in hot water as a chef pours oil into a hot skillet and adds your ingredient choices—from precooked shrimp to mushrooms, olives and broccoli. The chef then slides the pasta selection into the skillet, adds the herbs and spices upon request (salt, red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, etc.), and a splash of white wine (if you choose). He then swirls the mixture around, slips it from pan to container (half or whole size) and adds a little fresh cheese.

The set up at Zale Lipshy is similar, according to Kimbrough. Chef Brent Ruggles, who has worked at "nice local retail restaurants and for the Dallas Cowboys" prepares two from-scratch sauces—a red and a white. As is true at Wegman's, the offered proteins are precooked. So is the garlic—which, in this instance, is roasted. But that was not as much a culinary decision as it was an accommodation to cancer patients; the smell was not helping them feel any better, says Kimbrough.

Another pasta adaptation served at Zale is a toasted orzo side. "I'm not sure where the chef got this one but we toast the orzo in olive oil with herbs—it's similar to how you prepare toasted rice," says Kimbrough. The result is similar, too: the product ends up brown and has a nutty flavor. Ruggles sometimes augments the taste by adding almonds. The side is served with molasses-cured salmon.

A touch of sophistication: "I'm amazed by the acceptance of our pastas," says Kimbrough. "Our customers were very comfortable with macaroni and cheese so this has been quite a leap. But they're willing to make it because they trust us now." Plus, undoubtedly, the Zale customers have seen increasingly sophisticated pasta dishes at "commercial" operations and are much more comfortable with more unusual pasta dishes than they once were.

Pasta is such a mainstay of traditional board-plan operations "that when you start thinking about designing a marketplace or scatter system, pasta has its own real estate," says Dennis Pierce, associate department head of dining service, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs. "Which is not to say that pasta has lost its luster," he continues. "We've come a long way from a traditional meatball sauce and one kind of noodle—spaghetti."

One particularly popular sauce at UConn: a pesto made with basil and pine nuts. The department is also serving selections from a company that sells ravioli "with some pretty strange stuff," says Pierce. For example, last fall dining services featured pumpkin ravioli as a vegetarian option for a theme meal, served with a maple syrup sauce. "It was one of those items that you either really liked or not," says Pierce. The idea came from a presentation the company held at a NACUFS convention.

Increased appeal: In addition to unusual selections, Pierce increases appeal by incorporating non-traditional serving bowls. They are heated on the bottom and tilt toward customers. Not only does the food look more attractive, students can more easily help themselves.

Pasta is a staple at Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA, too, as far as the students are concerned, says foodservice director Florrie Paige. "Five years ago, the food committee asked us to offer pasta more often." According to Paige, students seem enthusiastic about any type of pasta that the department offers—from butternut squash ravioli to striped noodles.

Paige likes pasta because you can dress it up or down. That means the department can serve it at all the different types of Deerfield service styles—which range from buffets to formal sit-down meals complete with white linen tablecloths. However, pasta is most popular on Wednesdays and Saturdays—"sports" days at Deerfield.

"I think of pasta as being in the public domain," says Paige. "I'm not sure you can 'steal' from a particular operation—it's everywhere and in every form.'

Dueling chefs: But that didn't stop the department from hosting a cook-off among the Deerfield chefs one entire week. The chefs prepared their sauces, which ranged from a sun-dried tomato marinara to a puttanesca, in the dining area. There were more than 20 total, according to Paige. The ones the students preferred are now on the menu rotation.



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