Bring On the Sauce

Whole Grain Pasta
Whole-wheat pasta with roasted tomato sauce. (Renee Comet - For The Washington Post)
By Domenica Marchetti
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Venture into the pasta aisle at your local supermarket and you will immediately notice the ever-expanding variety of whole-grain pastas on the shelves -- spaghetti, elbows, penne, rigatoni and rotini.

For someone who eats pasta at least twice a week, as I do, this is good news, especially because the latest government nutrition guidance recommends that Americans eat at least three ounces of whole grains every day. Whole-grain pasta contains anywhere from four to seven grams of dietary fiber per serving, compared with just two grams in a serving of ordinary pasta.

The problem is that brown spaghetti can be a hard sell. Just ask a kid.

When the Montgomery County school system tried whole-wheat spaghetti on its students, officials struck out. "It's not that they were turned off by the color of the pasta, or even the flavor," says Kathleen C. Lazor, director of the schools' division of food and nutrition services. "It was the texture that really bothered them." The school system is now searching for whole-grain pasta that its students will tolerate.

Public school lunch managers have begun introducing more food with whole grains in order to meet new government recommendations for youngsters' diets. Both the Fairfax and Montgomery County school systems have already replaced traditional hot dog and hamburger buns with whole-wheat buns.

Fairfax plans to add whole-wheat spaghetti with marinara sauce to its school lunch offerings later this fall.

The reason whole-grain pastas don't taste good to a lot of people -- and not just kids -- is that their texture and flavor demand heartier sauces. Traditional semolina pasta has a smooth texture and mild flavor. Whole-wheat pasta, by contrast, is noticeably coarser in texture and has a nutty flavor. It's darker in color, and it lacks the slippery finish of regular pasta.

"Trying to compare whole-wheat pasta to regular pasta is like trying to compare fresh pasta with dry pasta, or a fruity olive oil with a smooth one. The characteristics are completely different," says Alfredo D'Innocenzo, executive director of Prodotti Mediterranei Inc., the North American importer for De Cecco, which has been importing pasta to the United States for more than a century.

So plain tomato sauce and butter and Parmesan cheese -- two of my favorite easy ways to dress pasta -- aren't robust enough for whole-grain pasta. Instead, I make a sturdier tomato sauce by roasting the tomatoes in the oven, a process that intensifies their flavor and brings out their natural sweetness. The idea is not to mask the flavor or texture of the pasta -- well, not completely, anyway -- but rather to complement it with ingredients that can stand up to it, such as nut pestos, zesty cheese sauces and hearty sauces made with vegetables.

Another rule of thumb with whole-grain pasta is not to overcook it. Whole-grain pasta is less forgiving than regular pasta. Cooked too long, it can turn unpleasantly crumbly. Cooked just right, and properly sauced, it's every bit as satisfying as regular pasta.

Domenica Marchetti writes about food from her home in Alexandria. Her first cookbook, "The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy" (Chronicle Books), is due out in 2006.


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