Dining

Grain Power

Why chefs look beyond wheat to make delicious pasta
Rye Rigatoni at Vic's | Photo: Lizzie Munro/Tasting Table
Rye Rigatoni at Vic's

We're used to savoring spicy, tangy rye in the form of a squat Sazerac cocktail or as the bookends of a sky-high Reuben sandwich. But Hillary Sterling, chef at Italian Mediterranean restaurant Vic's in New York, transforms the grain—with a little help from semolina flour—into a rustic rigatoni laden with braised lamb, oregano, lemon and white wine.

"Rye, caraway and buckwheat are used extensively in Trentino-Alto Adige," she says. "Our rye flour comes from a farm upstate and still has some coarseness to it that provides a more intense flavor and texture than commercial flour."

Sterling isn't the only chef to look beyond everyday wheat. Spurred in part by the growing numbers of gluten-sensitive diners, chefs are embracing alternative grains like millet, amaranth and teff in everything from bread to pizza to cake. Pasta yields especially delightful results.

Consider Jonathon Sawyer, the chef behind The Greenhouse Tavern, Trentina and Noodlecat in Cleveland. He operates a pasta lab out of Trentina, where he turns a number of flour varieties, including garbanzo, spelt and emmer, into noodles served at all his restaurants.

In nearby Cincinnati, Todd Kelly of the Orchids at Palm Court makes a pasta uniting go-to superfood quinoa with braised lamb-neck gravy, porcini mushrooms and Brussels sprouts leaves. Meanwhile, farro is the ancient grain of choice for Erick Williams of mk in Chicago, who whips up a farro tagliatelle with bison sugo, focaccia bread crumbs, Pecorino Gran Cru and fresh mint.

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Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Atlanta's Miller Union and author of the new cookbook, Root to Leaf, relishes the challenge of incorporating ingredients like whole-grain sorghum and antebellum hominy into his repertoire. One of his favorites is hearty creamed savoy cabbage with mushrooms and buckwheat penne, a spin on the traditional Northern Italian dish pizzoccheri al forno.

"I've always loved creamed cabbage, but when I discovered the combination of cabbage and buckwheat, it totally made sense to me," Satterfield says. "I love the way the nutty, earthy flavor of buckwheat combines with buttery cabbage. It gives body and weight, and the mushrooms add heft and meatiness, make it feel fully focused."

Wheat just seems bland by comparison.

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