Growing interest in world foods means that alongside rice and pasta, couscous, polenta and bulgar wheat are finding their way on to mainstream menus. John Porter explains how to integrate new starch options
There was a time when rice and pasta were unusual enough in their own right to be promoted as alternatives to the traditional spud accompaniment by chefs looking to add a touch of the exotic to a main course.
However, with the growth in influence of Asian and Mediterranean flavours and dishes over the past generation, what once seemed adventurous has now become mainstream. Which is not to say that risottos and pasta salads haven't earned their place as core menu dishes, or that a well-made fragrant jasmine rice isn't a thing of beauty.
Alongside rice and pasta, accompaniments such as couscous, polenta, bulgar wheat and quinoa are increasingly finding their way on to mainstream menus. Given that one of the earliest known mentions of couscous is found in a 13th-century Moroccan cookbook, at which point the semolina pasta was already described as "known all over the world", while quinoa was domesticated by ancestors of the Incas and Aztecs more than 3,000 years ago, these are hardly "new" dishes.
Growing interest in world foods, traditional ingredients and healthier options means that many more chefs are offering a wider range of choice when it comes to the starch content of a dish. At the Ebury bar and restaurant in London's Pimlico, chef James Holah serves dishes with a focus on health and freshness. He says: "There needs to be a filling element to a meal - you have to come away feeling satisfied - but people are looking for something different to pasta, potatoes and bread. Dishes such as couscous and bulgar wheat are great because they are satisfying, but light, and you can use ingredients such as lemon, jalapeño and fresh mint to deliver flavours.
A LIGHTER TOUCH
"Quinoa is the ancient food of the Aztecs and is a complete food in its own right - you can live off quinoa on its own. That means you can combine it with other flavours to deliver something different. I love working with it.
"We're trying to show that you can come out and enjoy a three-course meal without having to loosen your belt at the end of it. I think female customers particularly appreciate that, but there's a lot more emphasis on healthier food generally."
Martyn Reynolds, former head chef at the Michelin-starred Seven Park Place, now plies his trade at Upstairs London restaurant in Brixton. He says: "Less familiar ingredients have an immediate appeal because customers will ask about them, which gives you a chance to talk about the dish. We're using Israeli giant couscous, which has a texture almost like pasta, but a neutral flavour, so it goes with just about anything.
"I designed my dish of quinoa with Asian influences with vegetarians in mind, for whom I wanted to create an interesting main course full of textures and flavours.
"Quinoa is something I love, but it still not widely used, and it gets people talking when they see it on the menu. It has a great nutty flavour that works excellently with a great deal of products. I chose Asian spices to give the dish another dimension, and created a kind of quinoa pilau."
At the award-winning Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire, chef and licensee Ashley McCarthy finds that customers are willing to try new dishes - despite the fact that the pub's renowned home-made chips are served as a standard side order alongside every main course.
McCarthy says: "As well as rice and pasta, we've used couscous, quinoa and polenta in various forms over time. As we change the menus so often, and make full use of the specials boards, we do tend to use all these commodities on a regular basis, simply to ensure that there's plenty of variety.
"Many of our dishes are restaurant style, and already have a starch element such as mash and rösti, and a vegetable accompaniment. Our pasta goes down better than anything else on the menu, probably because it's home-made. Recent pasta dishes have included spiced crab spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and Parmesan, and butternut squash tortellini with wild mushroom cream sauce."
Rice and couscous have also proved popular. The pub serves rice alongside curry specials, as well as in dishes such as McCarthy's smoked haddock risotto, while lamb tagine with a sultana, apricot and almond couscous has been offered as a special several times. Another special is chicken breast with creamed polenta and marinated sweet peppers, but as McCarthy concedes: "Polenta is a slow seller, although I love the stuff!"
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