More flavors, more shapes more toppings Pasta Mania

February 09, 1994|By Barbara Sullivan | Barbara Sullivan,Chicago Tribune

Item: On any given day, customers at Fresh Fields grocery stores across the country have a choice of 35 to 40 varieties of fresh pasta, ranging in flavor from red pepper to garlic parsley.

Item: The average American consumer ate 18.4 pounds of pasta in 1990, up from 12.9 pounds in 1982. The National Restaurant Association estimates that by the year 2000 we'll be eating 30.6 pounds.

Is there no end to pasta mania?

Will we ever get our fill of fettuccine with pesto, ricotta-stuffed ravioli, linguine in clam sauce or just plain spaghetti and meatballs?

Not any time soon, according to the folks who track America's eating habits and, not surprisingly, those who market Italian foods.

A study last year by the NPD Group Inc., a Chicago research firm, shows that pasta ranks second among the top five growth foods in the last five years. The study tracked eating habits of 2,000 households over five years, and compared 65 foods and beverages to determine which have grown fastest in consumption. Soft drinks led the list, followed by pasta, chips, turkey sandwiches and ready-to-eat cereals.

Consumers cited two main reasons for their enchantment with noodles: Pasta is easy to fix and it's healthful. Digging into a bowl of complex carbohydrates is good for the body (unless, of course, those noodles are covered with such items as cream, prosciutto and/or Gorgonzola).

"Not only is it convenient to prepare, but it is considered quite good for you," said Harry Balzer, NPD vice president when he presented the five-year study last April in New York.

And a Gallup survey last May of more than 1,000 grocery shoppers found that 52 percent said they were eating more pasta than in the previous year. In that same poll, 92 percent said pasta was "convenient"; 93 percent said it was good for them.

Italian restaurants continue to proliferate. It's the No. 1 ethnic category in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association. Excluding pizza places, Italian restaurants increased 135 percent between 1985 and 1993, from 4,438 to 10,435, according to the Restaurant Consulting Group in Evanston, Ill. This compares to an increase of only 12 percent for all restaurants during the same time period.

"Oriental and Mexican restaurants still head the list [in numbers of ethnic restaurants], but Italian restaurants are increasing more rapidly," says Millie Lemajich, director of information services for the Evanston group.

One reason the love affair with pasta should continue is its vast variety -- spaghetti and meatballs will forever be dear to American hearts, but pasta lovers today have an ever-widening choice.

Macaroni and cheese becomes penne con cinque formaggi (tube pasta with five cheeses). Spaghetti with red sauce can be tagliatelle al ragu (ribbon pasta with meat sauce).

Cathie Weinberg, media communications manager for the Olive Garden chain of restaurants, also reports a large increase in pasta varieties and toppings in the last decade.

"We've seen tremendous changes. We're adding ingredients we didn't offer before, like capers, chopped olives, sliced peppers. There's so much of a variety that I don't see the market becoming saturated for a long time. There's room for lots of restaurants."

Value is another attraction; 96 percent of the shoppers surveyed in last year's Gallup poll said they liked the cost.

When it comes to eating out, a bowl of pasta is certainly cheaper than a steak or most French food. And portions often are staggeringly large.

So what's the forecast? The answer is clear -- pasta power is here to stay.

Although we often think of pasta as Italian, noodles in many shapes and forms are common in other cuisines.

Here are pasta recipes from Hungary, China and, of course, Italy.

*

These two recipes are adapted from "The World's Best Noodles" by Norman Kolpas. Try this recipe with chicken, turkey or beef, too.

Pork paprikash with noodles

Makes 4 servings

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound pork tenderloin, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

1 medium-sized red bell pepper, quartered, stemmed, seeded cut crosswise into 1/4 -inch strips

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 pound wide dried egg noodles

salt

2 tablespoons paprika

2 teaspoons caraway seeds

1/2 cup medium-dry white wine

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon tomato paste

white pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives

Melt the butter and oil in a large skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the pork, bell pepper and onion and cook until the pork is lightly browned and the vegetables are tender-crisp, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a medium-size saucepan of water to a boil. Add the noodles and a sprinkling of salt and boil until the noodles are al dente, following package instructions.

Add the paprika and caraway seeds to the pork mixture and cook 1 minute more. Add the wine and lemon juice and heat to a boil, stirring and scraping to dissolve the pan deposits; reduce the heat slightly and simmer gently for about 5 minutes.

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