Whole wheat pasta just doesn’t work with all sauces. Its nutty, somewhat assertive flavor can overpower a subtle sauce, and its texture, which can be granular, doesn’t work with others.
But whole wheat pasta has other virtues, and so I decided to look more closely into which sauces to pair with it. I organized a dinner party so friends and I could taste four classic pasta and sauce combinations, substituting whole wheat pasta for traditional noodles.
The pasta shapes chosen to go with the sauces follow a long history of Italian gastronomy: marinara with penne, Bolognese sauce with tagliatelle and with fusilli, pesto Genovese with spaghetti and with fettuccine, and carbonara with spaghetti. In addition, my friend Clifford Wright, a cookbook author, served whole wheat pappardelle with puréed fava beans and baby arugula.
We consistently found that whole wheat pastas are best with robust sauces. The sweet flavors in the marinara were overwhelmed by the nutty, grainy penne. But chewy, meaty Bolognese ragù and garlicky, nutty pesto worked with whole wheat fusilli, tagliatelle and spaghetti. Carbonara sauce failed with whole wheat spaghetti: The sauce didn’t adhere to the pasta, slipping off before the heat of the noodles had time to cook the eggs.
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The pappardelle dish that Clifford Wright made, which I have adapted here, is a traditional pasta from the Salento region of Apulia, where puréed legumes are often used with pasta. He used split dried yellow fava beans puréed with olive oil and garlic. You can find yellow favas at Middle Eastern markets.
Make sure that you serve the pasta right away once you toss it with the sauce. The purée will stiffen as it sits.
Whole wheat pappardelle with fava purée
3/4 cup or 5 1/2 ounces dried yellow fava beans, soaked in water to cover for 4 to 6 hours and drained
1 to 2 garlic cloves, to taste, mashed in a mortar with 1/2 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
Ground black pepper
3/4 pound whole wheat pappardelle
3 ounces baby arugula (about 3 cups, tightly packed)
2 tablespoons snipped chives
2 to 3 tablespoons ground roasted blanched almonds, for serving
Grated Parmesan, for serving
1. Place the fava beans in a pot and add 1 quart water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add salt to taste (1 rounded teaspoon or more) and continue to simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until favas are tender.
2. Set a strainer over a bowl and drain favas. Set aside 1 cup broth.
3. Transfer beans to a food processor along with the mashed garlic. Run the processor until the beans are crushed, then add 4 tablespoons olive oil and run until incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Add some of the reserved cooking water to thin the purée so it has the consistency of runny hummus. (You will need to add more broth later because the purée will stiffen as it cools.) Taste, adjust salt and season with pepper.
4. Transfer puréed favas to a metal bowl using a rubber spatula. Place remaining reserved broth in a small saucepan and heat. Place metal bowl over saucepan to keep fava purée warm.
5. Bring a large pot of water to a vigorous boil over high heat, salt generously and add pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (usually 6 to 8 minutes depending on the brand).
6. Use the warm broth to thin out the fava purée. Draw a small amount of pasta water from the pot and use it to warm a large serving bowl, then drain it from the bowl.
7. A few seconds before draining pappardelle, add arugula to pot, then drain arugula and pasta together. Immediately toss with the fava purée, chives and additional olive oil if desired. If purée seems too thick, add more of the broth and toss again. Serve at once, topping each serving with ground almonds. Pass Parmesan at the table.
Yield: 4 servings