Rice and pasta remain firm favourites on the catering menu and can help operators cope with spiralling food prices, reports Angela Frewin
The nation's continuing love for Mediterranean and Asian cuisine has kept rice and pasta high on the list of menu staples. The success of these energy-boosting carbohydrates is unsurprising: they are filling, satisfying and versatile, serving as sides, mains, accompaniments or desserts. Both work equally well with meats and vegetables and are key ingredients in a host of hot and cold dishes, from salads to casseroles.
Harvests of rice and the durum wheat used to make pasta have largely escaped the severe weather damage that has inflated mainstream wheat prices by 25%. But limited grain supplies will impact the cost of pork, poultry, dairy, eggs, breads and vegetable oils, warns Leathams sales director Clive Moxham, so caterers will be looking to control costs across the board.
Mark Lyddy, head of food service for Tilda, says stable prices and UN forecasts for bumper crops make rice "one of the most cost-effective ingredients available". Even so, with 100,000 variants to choose from, according to Mars Foodservice, a cost-effective approach is to pick high-yield products that are quick to prepare and cook and deliver consistently satisfying results, even in the hands of trainee chefs.
"A lot of chefs look at the price of a 20kg bag but that's really not the ultimate cost - it is the yield once you actually cook it, take it out of the pan and see how much is stuck," says Luis Castro, head of procurement and research and development at the Chilango chain of Mexican restaurants. "So my advice to chefs is to consider the cost of the finished product and not the bag."
Some 90% of the rice served by Chilango is Tilda Easy Cook Basmati and Lyddy finds many of his customers in the rising (and rice-championing) Mexican sector are switching from traditional long grain to Basmati rice because it offers a better platefill and yield than long grain. As it is also consumers' favourite rice, Lyddy predicts the trend will spread.
Caterers who lack the time or the know-how to sauce up their dishes can turn to the vast range of fuss-free, pre-prepared sauces on offer. Last year Knorr partnered Blue Dragon (the fastest-growing Oriental retail brand) to launch a line of concentrated pastes and heat-and-pour RTU sauces to help food service operators at all levels tap into the popularity of Oriental cuisine and street foods. "All chefs need to do is add water, some fresh ingredients and their own inspiration to create great-tasting authentic dishes in an instant," explains Sarah Branagan, category manager for sauces at parent company Unilever Food Solutions.
However, making your own sauce need not be labour-intensive or ingredient-intensive (see Pasta on a Shoestring, page 48). But if you are after authenticity, then Clare Benfeld, publications editor for PAPA (the Pizza and Pasta Association) warns that UK operators still have much to learn about the consistency of sauce that each of the hundreds of regional Italian pasta shapes are specifically designed to carry.
Benfeld has seen pasta evolve into a central menu offer in the UK: "Over the years, for consumers eating out in the UK, pasta appears to have gone from 'only' being a smaller portioned starter - just as it would be in Italy, where it is served as separate dish in the run- up to the main event of a meat or fish dish - to very often being the main, or sole, dish eaten. Lunchtime meal deals seeking to promote it as a healthy and competitively-priced option make it appealing during these economically challenging times."
New pasta shapes are being created almost daily to meet demands as diverse as fine dining and microwavable instant meals, but Benfeld notes a growing trend in food service towards gourmet and artisan varieties. Large-scale suppliers are now using bronze extrusion dies alongside the mass-market Teflon dies to deliver the rougher, more absorbent surfaces achieved by smaller, artisan pasta-makers - which can command premium prices.
Variety A more health-conscious clientele is also fuelling a renaissance of interest in alternative (though often ancient) grains and pulses that can add variety and interest to menus and are less affected by commodity pricing. Cous cous, wild and red Camargue rice, quinoa, polenta (a cornmeal porridge sometimes mixed with buckwheat) and lentils are all finding their way on to mainstream menus.
"The popularity of lentils has really soared over the past few years, as more people looked for cleaner and healthier mealtime alternatives," says Moxham at Leathams, which has been encouraged to expand its range of speciality grains and pulses by robust sales growth.
Rice's low fat and salt content also allows it to extend its menu reach as a healthy alternative to chips, suggests Lyddy at Tilda. And the gluten-free grain can certainly meet the growing demand to cater for customers with gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
In fact, rice (combined with corn) is already helping the pasta market deal with this dietary demand - this mix is used in the slow-dried, rough-surfaced and additive-free pastas from Italian gluten-free specialist Dialcos, which has just arrived in the UK as a nine-strong range imported by Elena's Gluten Free Way.
Ignoring the gluten-intolerant market could cost caterers much more than its estimated £100m value - research commissioned last year by frozen dessert supplier Almondy found that 71% of consumers are guided by the needs of gluten-intolerant friends or relatives when deciding where to dine out.
LEATHAMS' TOP-SELLING SPECIALS
|!](https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/Nu35LfGITciEeLLYPIVm)||Puy lentils These dark green, blue-marbled pulses grown on volcanic soils in France have a delicate, slightly peppery flavour and a firmer texture and finer skin than other lentils. Nutritional, gluten-free and versatile, they work well as a stand-alone vegetable, a meat accompaniment, and in casseroles, soups, and salads.|
|!(https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/9mH2RccQ5SY9y5UnUbR5)||Black beluga lentils Resembling Beluga caviar when cooked, these small, black, strong-flavoured pulses retain their shape and al dente bite after heating and absorb flavours well. They require no pre-soaking|
|!(https://cdn.filestackcontent.com/r3sluxz4SLCnpk9jdGze)||Wheatberries Whole, unprocessed wheat kernels with a creamy, nutty flavour that retain their shape and chewy texture after long cooking. Use in sweet and savoury dishes, salads and as an alternative to rice and pasta.|
|![||Quinoa The small red, white or dark brown nutty-flavoured grains are gluten-free and super-nutritious. These perfect proteins have satisfied both Aztecs and astronauts.|
TOP OF THE POPS
â- 71.67% of consumers tuck into a pasta meal one or more times each week (research by Italian restaurant chain Strada)
â- The past year has shown a 33% rise in meals eaten with rice (Mintel)
â- Chicken tikka masala, sweet and sour chicken, and Thai green curry are among the nation's top five dishes â¨(UK Food Network)
PASTA SAUCES ON A SHOESTRING
Making your own pasta sauces need not bust the budget - or the deadline - suggests Chris Ince, executive chef at contract caterer 7 Day Catering.
"The price of vegetables - particularly those traditionally associated with pasta, such as courgettes, aubergines and peppers - are on the rise. If these products are beyond your budget, then, rather than substitute them for cheaper, inauthentic vegetables such as carrots or sweetcorn, consider other options to get maximum flavour and appeal."
"Caterers should start by taking a good look at what's currently cooking in their kitchen. For example, if Moroccan spiced lamb shanks are on the menu, then the chances are there will be a surplus of well braised, nicely seasoned sauce that would go beautifully with some tossed pasta. By adding some chopped herbs, there is a ready-made main course for the following day. This makes good financial sense as the original dish will already have made its contribution to the overall gross profit, so the leftover sauce is a tasty and profitable bonus.
"Other variations could include beef and mushrooms braised in red wine, chicken with tarragon and cream, plus pork with cream and mustard. This is not cheating, or deception; it's just good sense as these sauces may well make their way into a soup pot or, even worse, the bin.
"Another option is to flavour the oil before tossing in the pasta. Dried chillies or garlic add bags of flavour for practically no cost, so there is little need to add more garnish. Why not warm some chilli flakes and garlic in oil, add some chopped bacon (40g per serving is ample) before tossing in your pasta. Season aggressively with black pepper and some salt and the dish is complete.
"Beans are also useful with pasta. Using the method above, add a handful of haricot beans and some chopped, fresh, flat leaf parsley to extend the pot even further at very little additional cost. Similarly, try lemon zest and buttery toasted breadcrumbs, with a little greenery such as spinach or rocket for colour.
"Dried spices can also be a caterer's best friend. A little toasted paprika, Cajun spice or even Thai green or red curry pastes fried quickly in oil produce flavour-packed bases for tossed pasta and require minimal additional garnish. Of course, authenticity goes clean out of the window but the result is a satisfying, cost-effective dish that customers will enjoy. Bear in mind that 50g of protein is usually ample garnish, if needed at all."
Elena's Gluten Free Way 020 3239 2230 www.elenasgfway.co.uk
Leathams 020 7635 4000 www.leathams.com
Mars Foodservice (Uncle Ben's) 0800 952 1234 www.mars-foodservice.co.uk
Pizza and Pasta Association 01291 636333 www.papa.org.uk
Tilda Foodservice 01708 717777 www.tildafoodservice.com
Unilever Foods Solutions (Knorr) 0800 783 3728 www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk