Anyone who knows me knows this much: Pasta is my favorite food.
Pasta is the first thing that I eat when I get back from a trip. Pasta is what I ask for on my birthday. Pasta is what I serve my husband, Craig, on our anniversary—even when he asks for scallops. It's what I cook when I get good news. Or bad news. Pasta is the meal that I want on my deathbed, and also the first meal that I want when I get to heaven, assuming they serve pasta in heaven. (If they don't serve pasta, it's definitely not heaven.)
Since pasta is a main character at my dinner table, I decided that the time was finally ripe to explore the vast (and I mean vast) world of alternative pastas.
Don't believe me? Just head to your grocery store and check out the rows and rows of alternative pastas next to the De Cecco and Barilla. You'll find alternative pastas made from edamame, brown rice, black beans, lentils, mung beans, and even kelp. Name an ingredient, and you can probably find an alternative pasta made from it. Peanut butter pasta? Asparagus pasta? French onion soup pasta? They either exist or they're about to. (Kidding—sort of.)
For my taste test, I decided to concentrate on three brands of alternative pastas.
The first happened upon me before I happened upon it. Tumminia Busiate ($15 from Gustiamo), which my friend Ben Mims, the Los Angeles Times recipe columnist, used to serve with his four-hour Bolognese when I went over to his house for dinner. He didn't know that I was writing this column, but when I told him about it, he eagerly showed me the packaging.
Calling Tumminia Busiate an alternative pasta is kind of like calling Coldplay alternative rock: It's a bit of a stretch. The stuff is made from flour, only instead of highly processed white flour, the flour is stone-ground from durum wheat semolina. Not just any durum wheat, however—Tumminia is an ancient variety with roots in Sicily. According to the website, "Tumminia is very digestible and even suitable for people with some wheat sensitivities" and "rich in vitamins, minerals, and protein," too.
Purported health benefits aside, for Filippo Drago—the Sicilian grain miller, bread baker, and pasta maker behind the brand—it all comes down to taste: "It's not a penance, it's a joy," he says.
Hear, hear, Filippo Drago. And I'm here to tell you that of the three alternative (or semi-alternative) pastas that I sampled, this one was easily my favorite. The pasta itself had a nuttiness and a rough texture that played beautifully with the Bolognese, but I can also understand why Drago says he likes to eat his plain with just a little olive oil. It's just that good.
I suppose it's not that shocking to learn that I loved this imported, hand-crafted (and yes, pricey) pasta from Italy so much. So let's talk about another hand-crafted pasta from Italy that I tried: Monograno Felicetti Farro Fusilli Pasta ($8.99 from the Felicetti website). The idea of farro pasta greatly appealed to me because I like farro in and of itself. Tossed with a citrusy vinaigrette, toasted nuts, raisins, and goat cheese, farro makes for a great lunch—only the texture can be unpredictable if you don't boil it long enough. Transforming it into pasta seemed like a potential win-win for everyone.
If I were a true scientist (note: I'm not any kind of scientist), I would've sampled all of these pastas plain. Unfortunately, I'm a hedonist and decided to serve this pasta with a zesty puttanesca made with lots of garlic, anchovies, San Marzano tomatoes, and capers.
Turns out, this was a wise thing to do. Much like the Bolognese with the Tumminia, the sauce here melded so well with the fusilli, I didn't think about it too much. Only, after chewing for a while and contemplating the pasta beneath the sauce, did I begin to notice a few unpleasant sensations on my palate. I opened my Notes app and wrote down the following:
Unlike the Tumminia, which had a pleasant complexity, this had the undeniable whiff of what I can only describe as "health food." Craig, who's neither a scientist nor a hedonist, thought I was being dramatic. "It tastes fine," he said. And truth be told, you could do a lot worse than farro pasta.
Like chickpea pasta, for example. This was my third and final experiment: Banza Chickpea Pasta ($3.39 from Target). Of all of the alternative pastas I've heard touted, chickpea pasta comes up the most frequently. It's the one that I was most excited to try because I love chickpeas; I love putting them in salads, in soups, I even love smashing them with tahini and putting them on toast. Theoretically, grinding them up and turning them into a pasta makes good sense. That is until you taste it.
"Pathte!" I called from the kitchen, my mouth stuck together.
"What?" answered Craig.
"It tathtes like pathte," I struggled to say, like Flick in "A Christmas Story" with his tongue frozen to a pole.
After tasting it straight out of the pot, I tossed the chickpea pasta with a sauce made from hot Italian sausage, lots of garlic, and broccoli. If those things weren't there, I may have never opened my mouth again. Once incorporated, however, the chickpea pasta served its purpose. Was it good? Not particularly. Did it come anywhere close to a more traditional pasta? It did not. But if you're comfortable with pasta not being the star of the dish, is it a decent alternative to white-flour pasta? I'll go with yes.