Eating whole grain pasta

I’ve made several concessions at my table in the name of good health, and most of them are positive. I like brown rice nearly as much as white, and a crusty whole-grain boule even more than most pale baguettes. Quinoa and millet have happily entered my dinner rotation, and whole-grain polenta is a sweet, corny delight.

The one line I thought I’d never cross, however, was made of golden strands of semolina linguine.

Because pasta was never a major part of my diet, I thought there was no bodily harm done by staying on the refined side, so I never bothered exploring whole-wheat options. And distant memories of gritty, mushy bowls eaten at bad health-food restaurants kept my curiosity in check.

Then one day, my husband declared that he was going to start running marathons. Pasta became his favourite way to carbo-load, at least twice a week. And that’s when we decided to give the whole-wheat stuff another go.

There was, it turns out, a lot from which to choose. In the past few years, the whole-grain pasta offerings on supermarket shelves have expanded with gusto. Where there used to be one or two, there were now up to a dozen. There’s everything from mass-market brands touting health claims (High fibre! Good source of omega-3’s and antioxidants! Extra protein!), to artisanal pastas made from ancient strains of wheat like farro and spelt in tastefully rustic packaging.

Not only are there more whole-wheat pastas available than ever before, but some of them show a major leap in quality. (Not all of them, though. There is still plenty of dreadful whole-wheat pasta out there.)

Ken Skovron, co-owner of Darien Cheese and Fine Foods, a specially store in Connecticut, said that in the past few years he had watched sales of whole-grain pastas soar.

“There’s been a huge demand for them,” he told me. “A few years ago I stocked one or two cuts. These days I’ve got five or six, and they fly out the door.”

Unlike the gluey, good-for-you-but-not-your-taste-buds pastas of yore, the best whole-grain brands are firm-textured and tasty. I like the toastiness of whole-wheat spaghetti from Garofalo, which Emma Hearst, the chef and a co-owner at Sorella in Manhattan, compared to Grape-Nuts when we tasted it together. The gentle, honey-like flavour of Gia Russa whole-wheat fettuccine makes it a perfect “kid pasta,” said Anna Klinger, chef and co-owner at Al di La in Brooklyn. My favourite is Bionaturae, which has a mild, clean flavour and an elastic texture that comes closest to that of regular pasta.

The warm, nutty flavour of varieties like these is robust enough to stand up to intense, complicated sauces, yet satisfying with just a little butter and Parmesan shaved over the top. According to Lidia Bastianich, co-owner of Felidia restaurant and of the new Italian-food megaplex, Eataly, with growing numbers of people trying to eat more healthfully, the demand for higher quality whole-grain pastas has gone up. She says she enjoys eating whole-wheat pasta at home.

“There are times when I prefer something less starchy and more nutritious, but I also like its nutty, grainy flavour,” Bastianich said.

She suggests pairing whole-wheat pasta with heartier pestos, like one made with spinach and walnuts. Anchovies and bread crumbs also go nicely with full-flavoured whole grains, she said, as do wilted greens.

To that list, I would add spicy tomato sauces, meat sauces and chunky vegetable sauces with plenty of garlic. Delicate cream sauces, however, tend to come up short.

Skovron said: “A whole-wheat pasta made from inferior wheat will just fall apart in the pot, especially if you overcook it – even by one minute. It will have a granular texture that turns to sawdust when you chew because there isn’t enough gluten to hold it together.”

The best pastas, white and whole wheat, are made from flours that are high in protein, with strong elastic glutens.

White pasta is more forgiving. Pretty much any high-protein flour will produce an edible linguine, although durum wheat (including semolina) is considered the ideal.

Not so with whole wheat, which must be made with low-yielding wheat varieties for it to have any kind of textural integrity. Most common whole-grain brands are made from standard high-yielding strains fortified with extras like flaxseed, oat bran or legume powder for added dietary oomph.

These can taste terrible enough to turn off even the staunchest nutritionist. When I asked Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, what she thought of the profusion of whole-grain “super” pastas, she wrinkled her nose.

“I object to people adding stuff to food to make it seem healthy,” she said. “Pea powder and flaxseeds don’t belong in pasta.”

She did approve of whole-wheat pasta with an ingredient list of one (that would be whole wheat). “Just make sure it has plenty of fibre,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just not worth eating.”