Cost-effective yet supremely satisfying, noodles shine on menus as chefs tap their global appeal.
This article first appeared in the 1 May 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
RECIPE: Egg Noodles (see bottom of article)
Vietnamese pho may not unseat spaghetti and meatballs as a quintessential comfort food in the hearts of most Americans anytime soon. But when bowls of rice noodles steeped in spicy broth are offered against the homey Italian favorite at Harvard University, something surprising happens. "Hands down, the pho always serves more customers," says Martin Breslin, director of culinary operations at the Cambridge, Mass.-based campus.
That Asian noodle bowls regularly outsell standard spaghetti not only speaks to the evolving palates of college students, whose tastes will drive menus for decades to come, but also underscores the increasing popularity of diverse noodle dishes across foodservice segments.
At Mediterranean-inspired Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar in Portland, Ore., for example, customers can tuck into fideos (the Spanish term for thin, vermicelli-like pasta) with fish, clams, mussels, prawns and tomato sauce. Seattle's Dahlia Lounge offers hot-smoked black cod with buckwheat soba, while at Restaurant August in New Orleans, Chef-owner John Besh has paired glazed quail with rice vermicelli and lemongrass broth.
Traditionally, the term "noodle" was distinguished from the Italian word "pasta" as dough made with flour and eggs rather than just flour and water (or in some cases, milk). Today, the definitions behind these terms aren't applied as strictly, especially with the rising prevalence of all kinds of Asian noodles, which may or may not include egg in addition to rice flour, wheat flour or other components.
With paring down food costs a top-of-mind concern for most operators these days, the reliance on cost-effective noodles makes sense. "The top chefs in the country all seem to have found a way to put a noodle or pasta on their menus," says Executive Chef Jonathan Krinn, who serves saffron cavatelli with vegetable fricassee at his recently opened Inox restaurant in Tysons Corner, Va. "It's almost as if one chef is challenging another to take that very simple approach and see if they can create a quality dish."
Menuing pasta also provides a comfortable entry point for guests, he says. "You don't want people to get the impression that you're too expensive," says Krinn. "When they see pasta on the menu, it really relaxes them."
Considering that pasta and noodles are a staple in nearly every world cuisine-and given the continuing creep of ethnic influences onto menus in general-the rise in globally inspired noodle dishes seems a natural evolution.
Asian noodles such as udon, soba, rice vermicelli and chow fun have made their way into the mainstream, and so has the philosophy that protein doesn't have to dominate the center of the plate. It's an atypical approach for American menus, but one that serves operators particularly well in lean economic times.
"In Asian cuisine, noodles and vegetables are in the starring role, whereas the meat is [just another] flavoring," says Joanne Chang, chef-owner of Myers + Chang, a contemporary Chinese restaurant in Boston. "Our beef-and-broccoli chow fun uses really high-end steak, but the noodles are cheap. If you want to give more value without changing the price, you can increase the noodles by a couple of ounces and it doesn't cost much."
For her vegetarian take on Szechuan dan dan noodles, Chang chooses wheat-based Shanghai noodles that resemble thick spaghetti. Blanched ahead of service, they're portioned into individual containers with a touch of chile oil to keep them from sticking and then tossed to order with cucumbers, green onions, cilantro and sesame seeds in a house-made peanut sauce.
Of course, some noodle varieties work better than others in different recipes, Chang notes. Chewy udon stands up nicely in soups and in cold applications, for instance, but thick, wide chow fun hardens when served cold and can dissolve in broths. Most work great in stir-fries, she says.
SPICE AS NICE
At Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., Chef-owner Ana Sortun offers two dishes built around fideos. The thin strands (which she crushes into fine sticks) gain body and flavor from preparations more complex than simply boiling them.
Sortun's spicy fideos and chickpeas with green chard and orange aÁ¯oli has become an Oleana staple. She cooks the noodles pilaf-style in spiced saffron-tomato broth with chickpeas and sautéed Swiss chard until all the liquid is absorbed. Orange aÁ¯oli is stirred in at the end, lending a lightly citrusy richness. "It's a great vegetarian option because it gets such richness from the toasted pasta, all the spices in the broth and the aÁ¯oli," Sortun says.
Her newest dish was inspired by a recent trip to Fez, Morocco, where Sortun learned to prepare a local recipe called sharia. Fideos are tossed lightly in olive oil and steamed three times for 10 minutes each in a small amount of water to yield a light, feathery consistency. The noodles blanket an aromatic duck stew sprinkled with cinnamon and crushed almonds.
Another option chefs are exploring is hilopites, a Greek egg noodle most familiar as small, square pieces (it also comes in long strands a bit wider than fettucine). The squares typically are used with seafood or meats such as lamb, although they also can be served simply with butter and cheese or tomato sauce, says Executive Chef Pano I. Karatassos of Kyma in Atlanta. "Chefs are always experimenting with little macaroni noodles and so forth, and these are just great," he says, noting that a regular dry-goods supplier should be able to find the noodles. "They're very friendly for kids, too-they don't get to see square pasta too often."
Kyma's recipe for prawns with hilopites begins with shrimp cooked in a hot sauté pan with white wine and shrimp stock. Once cooked through, the shrimp are removed, and fresh tomato compote is mixed with the liquid in the pan to create a light sauce that is finished with lemon juice and dill. The hilopites, which serves as the foundation for the dish and soaks up the sauce, cooks quickly in boiling salted water (if the pasta finishes a few minutes early, it can sit at room temperature in a little extra-virgin olive oil, Karatassos says).
EGG 'EM ON
Chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton doesn't often dabble in pasta at American restaurant Prune in New York City, but when she does, it's an Á¼ber-simple recipe made from just flour and eggs. "Egg noodles taste richer and more delicious to me," she says. Her current lunch menu features a housemade "kerchief"-a thin rectangular noodle draped over a poached egg topped with a slice of good-quality French ham. The straightforward dish is finished with a splash of balsamic vinegar, shaved Parmesan cheese and toasted pine nuts. "It's kind of a lazy man's raviolo," says Hamilton, who, below, shares a second approach to the dish.
- Fine egg noodles 1Â½ lb.
- Kosher salt Â¼ cup
- Unsalted butter 12 oz. and as needed
- Eggs 12
- Parmesan cheese, grated 6 oz.
- Pine nuts, toasted Â½ cup.
- Black pepper, coarsely ground as needed
- Cook noodles in boiling salted water for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain; keep warm.
- In sauté pan over medium-high heat, brown 12 oz. butter; reserve.
- Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat; cook eggs until whites are set and yolks are no longer runny, but not hard.
- To serve, portion 1 cup noodles on plate.
- Top with 1 egg, 1 to 2 Tbsp. brown butter, 2 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese, 2 tsp. pine nuts and black pepper to taste.