Rice, pasta and pulses are invaluable when catering for today's health-conscious diners. But, asks Emma Allen, how can they be given more taste appeal to make them a real profit opportunity?
If you think rice, pasta and pulses are the least adventurous of foods, you'd better think again. They're extremely versatile, and served hot or cold, in soups or salads, as side dishes or as the main course, they can be used in a huge variety of ways to add interest to a menu.
What's more, they make a cost-effective option for caterers keen to attract the growing number of health-conscious diners. With five million vegetarians in the UK, and numbers on the rise, most operators would be wise to include them on the menu in some form or another.
Research from the Food Standards Agency suggests at least a third of an adult's diet should come from foods like these, and rather than just being starchy fillers, carbohydrates like rice and pasta are excellent low-fat sources of protein, fibre and energy. Rice is cholesterol-free and is suitable for those with gluten and wheat intolerances, while the super-nutritious pulse family is rich in iron, vitamins and minerals and can even help reduce cholesterol levels.
In short, pasta, pulses and rice have a lot to offer. But not even the most health-conscious customer wants to be faced with a pile of uninspiring lentils or grains. So to make these foods an attractive menu option, and therefore maximise their profit potential, taste and texture is key.
The good news is that there are lots of easy ways to make rice more interesting. Mark Lyddy, national food service account manager at Tilda, suggests adding herbed oil and lemon juice, stirring in pesto or some artichokes or even just putting in some colour.
For pasta, keeping sauces simple and using fresh ingredients will add to the authenticity of a dish, and it's important to choose a pasta shape and sauce that complement each other. "String pastas, like tagliatelle or tagliarini, are best with smooth, clingy sauces, while delicate varieties like capelli d'angelo tend to go best with light, thin tomato or fish sauces," says development chef Anthony Bennett of RHM Foodservice. "Chunky textures with bold flavours suit short shapes like penne, fusilli and farfalle and are great with meat-based dishes."
One way to heighten appeal and create interest on the plate is to choose lesser-known varieties of pasta or rice, especially as today's customers are more willing to try different types of food. "We can see from retail trends that customers are becoming much more discerning, and today there's a higher level of expectation," says Lyddy. "Caterers are missing a trick if they just stick to white long-grain."
Basmati, he explains, has now become one of the most widely sold varieties, with nearly half of all rice meals cooked at home using it. "Sales have grown year on year," he says. "Back in 1990, we didn't sell any but it's now the most popular in the retail market by far."
Brown rice and wild rice, ideal for healthier menus, are also starting to make their mark, and complete rice dishes such as risotto and paella are becoming increasingly popular with consumers. Veetee says its brown basmati rice has a distinctive nutty flavour, while varieties of authentic Italian risotto rice are available from IB Food, including carnaroli from the Veneto region, a pearly white short-grain rice ideal for delicate risottos, and vialone nano, which cooks to a firm consistency and suits more full-bodied risotto types.
"Currently there are so many types of rice available, from Kashmiri, which lends itself to curry and other Indian foods, to coconut or jasmine and fragrant rice," says Lee Tynan, food innovation and development controller at the Authentic Food Company, which recently added Firecracker to its range, a blend of white rice with flakes of chilli and spring onion, suitable as an accompaniment to Chinese and Thai dishes. "Provenance, regionality and authenticity are also playing an important part in the rice sector nowadays."
Using premium or unusual products can be advantageous in other ways. Basmati has a better plate fill than ordinary grain, and as it commands a higher price, it can result in a greater profit opportunity for caterers.
Similarly, putting rice on as an optional side dish can increase margins as well as give diners greater choice and flexibility. "If you go to an Indian restaurant, diners happily pay extra for rice, and elsewhere you pay extra for chips or vegetables, so why not rice?" Lyddy asks. "It's not common practice yet, but certain groups, like Nando's, are already starting to move in this direction by offering rice as an extra. It's something caterers could make much more of."
As for pulses, one new range of Italian pulses, beans and grains comes from IB Food, including small-sized Umbrian lentils ready for cooking without presoaking, and delicately flavoured Cicerchia, a dried bean that can be used in salads and soups or making creams for bruschetta toppings.
At the Midlands-based Peach Pub Company, a seven-strong chain with a food offering based on seasonal British produce, pulses feature all year round on the menus, which usually include at least three vegetarian choices.
"More of our customers are opting for non-meat dishes nowadays, and we're seeing an interest in healthy food right across the board," says managing director Lee Cash. "Pulses and beans fit into this very well. They're easy to use, can be inexpensive and there's no reason for them to be boring. This summer, we did a mixed bean salad with a honey and mustard dressing which went down very well as a light lunch, and we use lentils a lot in soups and salads, as well as hearty mains like cassoulets and bakes."
In the education sector, new guidelines brought in last year to exclude junk food in favour of healthier school meals mean that pasta and rice must now provide at least 50% of complex carbohydrate requirements on school menus.
For Jan Mak, school dietitian at Sodhexo, which operates in more than 600 primary and secondary schools around the UK, the changes have meant thinking up a whole host of new recipes to whet children's appetites. "Fried foods like chips are now restricted, so we've had to be creative to replace them in an interesting way," she explains.
"Pasta on its own can be bland, but dishes like barbecue pork with noodles, vegetable lasagne or a corn and vegetable risotto all combine colour and texture on the plate in a way that appeals to children.
"Kids can be quite conservative eaters, so it's important to think about how the food looks and feels. Adding extra vegetables, meat, fish or cheese means you're giving a better nutritional balance of proteins and vitamins, rather than carbohydrates alone, and visually the food will look more enticing."
Pulses can be a harder sell, particularly for younger audiences. "Children are less accustomed to foods such as chickpeas or lentils than rice or pasta, which they probably eat at home," says Mak. She suggests that adding pulses to curries can work well. "We do a cauliflower and lentil spice curry served with broccoli and rice that's proving very popular."
Naresh Guglani, development chef at Veetee, has developed a number of child-friendly curry recipes, including fruity and nutty chicken with buttered saffron rice, curried spinach and baby potatoes served with cherry tomato rice and chicken jambalaya, a mixture of chicken, ham, sausage and tomato. Served with brown basmati rice, they can make a nutritious, low-fat option for children's menus.
At Astley Sports College in Dukinfield, Greater Manchester, one of the issues facing catering manager Sheila Halliwell was balancing the need for healthy, interesting menu choices against time constraints in the kitchen. As the college's catering team won a Healthy Choices award from the Primary Health Care Trust in 2004, Halliwell particularly wanted to promote nutritional food to the 11- to 16-year-old students. "We cater for around 850 lunches a day, so one of the difficulties we have in introducing new food to the menu is making sure it's quick and easy to serve while appealing to students," she explains.
Halliwell decided to install a pasta bar unit, supplied by Pasta King, that uses precooked pasta refreshed on site and served with a range of sauces. For her, the system is a success. "Most students like pasta, but it can be difficult to prepare large quantities," she says. "This is very convenient, as it overcomes the preparation problem and it means we can serve a complete meal quickly."
- Authentic Food Company 0161-495 4000 www.theauthenticfoodcompany.com
- Barilla 020 8939 9013 www.barillagroup.com
- IB Foods 0800 252 222 www.ibfood.com
- Pasta King 01626 334480 www.pastaking.net
- RHM Foodservice 0800 328 4246 www.rhmfoodservice.co.uk
- Rickmers Rice UK 0141-889 4676 www.rickmers.co.uk
- Tilda 01708 717777 www.tildafoodservice.com
- Unilever Foodsolutions 0800 783 3728 www.unileverfoodsolutions.co.uk
- Veetee 01634 290092 www.veetee.com
Rob La Francesca, Brakes Group product marketing manager, grocery, offers an overview of the market for rice, pasta and pulses.
Ethnic foods have advanced to a point where Indian, Chinese and Thai dishes are commonplace in all sectors. Rice is now a key product for profit and cost sector outlets including schools and hospitals, as it's perfect for children, the elderly and the sick.
Restaurants, hotels and pubs are also growing their vegetarian menus, and rice has benefited from these being suitable for vegetarians and vegans and also for those with gluten and wheat intolerances.
Basmati rice has seen the fastest growth, and is the most popular along with long-grain. Arborio rice has also grown, with risotto dishes featuring more and more on restaurant, pub and hotel menus.
Consumers are trading up to higher quality products and wanting provenance, with traditional and authentic menu options. Therefore, premium pasta is becoming increasingly popular with restaurants, pubs and hotels, and elaborate descriptions are being included on menus along with information on origin, authenticity and the quality of dishes.
For example, tomato and mascarpone fusilli might be described as being made with the finest premium dried Italian durum wheat pasta, fresh Italian plum tomatoes and the finest Italian olive oil. The most popular varieties of pasta are penne, fusilli, lasagne and spaghetti.
The trend towards highlighting healthy options and the nutritional value of foods has benefited pulses, which have received an increased focus recently because of their health benefits as a source of complex carbohydrates and fibre, and also their suitability for vegetarian dishes. The most popular varieties are red lentils, couscous and semolina.
Brakes 0845 606 9090 www.brake.co.uk