Mark Ladner is a Belmont, Massachusetts native whose formative years were spent in Harvard Square; his first job was working at a pizzeria in the neighborhood, so it was fitting that he'd come back to the area to talk about dough. In fact, he first experienced the idea of "al dente" thanks to chickpeas at the salad bar of a now-defunct nearby basement restaurant, 33 Dunster Street. "No matter where you go, where you buy it, a chickpea in a can is always perfect," Ladner said last night. It's not quite the same as al dente pasta, but in both cases a hardness gives way to a certain chewiness.
Fast-forward to Del Posto, where he's been cooking for about a decade, making lots of pasta. ("My first love and joy," he noted.) He brought along Del Posto "pasta master" Carlos Rodriguez last night — who handles pasta in a way that is "both forceful and gentle simultaneously, cue blushing from Rodriguez and a little bit of swooning from the audience — to help demonstrate the differences between regular dough and gluten-free dough.
Gluten-free dough is of particular interest to Ladner as he's been working on his Pasta Flyer project for three years. Thanks to a recent successful Kickstarter campaign, he has launched a quick-service, gluten-free pasta truck that is touring around to various college-heavy cities at the moment, and the eventual plan is to open up brick-and-mortar restaurants.
A goal of Pasta Flyer is to get gluten-free pasta to the point where no one notices it's gluten-free. "Fortunately most of our competition is really bad," Ladner joked, calling out a few big-name chains that "don't have the same level of standards."
Elastic and Plastic Food
Fresh pasta can't be al dente.
Before Ladner spoke about pasta, Harvard's Michael Brenner introduced the lecture, as always. "Elasticity is of central importance to cooking," he declared, bidding the audience to think about things like the doneness of steak or the firmness of tofu. They're just like springs. Similarly, if you're describing the elasticity of pasta, you can think of it as how springy or stretchy it is. Dry pasta is plastic — it's brittle, and it'll snap when bent. But cooked pasta is elastic — when you rehydrate it, it can be stretched and pulled.
Al dente is a special place between plastic and elastic. It's "a toothsome firmness that gives way to a rewarding chew," said Ladner. Contrary to popular belief, he added, it's really only dry pasta we can talk about when it comes to al dente. As far as Ladner is concerned, fresh pasta can't be al dente.
A Growing Interest in Wheat-Free Pasta
Pasta has been around for eons, but the non-wheat variety has only started to grab hold over the last few years. Ladner pointed out that there are multiple reasons people don't eat wheat — whether it's celiac disease, a gluten intolerance, or just an adherence to a fad diet — but it doesn't matter which reason it is. They're all treated with equal seriousness at Del Posto (which offers gluten-free versions of all the pastas) and Pasta Flyer (which is 100% gluten-free). He admits, though, that some gluten-free pastas just aren't good. Orecchiette, for example, doesn't have egg in it and ends up being quite brittle. Gluten-free pastas that do have egg have a bit of an elastic advantage. Egg is more likely to be found in long, wide noodles — it helps prevent sticking.
A key component to making gluten-free pasta mimic regular pasta is getting the mouthfeel right. Is it possible for gluten-free pasta to truly reach that al dente state without gluten, which is the main source of springiness in regular pasta? Ladner and Rodriguez put regular dough and gluten-free dough through an extruder and showed the difference — the former becomes a smooth, cohesive ball while the latter is crumbly. The gluten-free dough really doesn't have much stretch fresh out of the extruder, but if you cook it right away, it'll get some elasticity. Some say that the salt in the cooking water has something to do with the elasticity, Ladner noted, and he likes to use heavily salted water — saltier than seawater —which also contributes positively to the taste.
Making Gluten-Free Pasta on a Truck
If you want to serve food from a truck, think twice. Or do sandwiches.
While Ladner and his team have spent three years researching and testing to create a "patent-pending pasta bowl that marries traditional Italian culture with Japanese ramen efficiency," there are other factors to consider when bringing that idea to a truck and eventually a chain of quick-service restaurants. According to plan, all would be serviced by a central commissary (the "Mothership") outside of major cities. The pastas and sauces would be made at the Mothership and sent to the shops in that city, where they'd be prepared in minutes for waiting customers.
At first, Ladner was imagining something like space food. The pasta would be freeze-dried, transported, and then rehydrated on location — but this added five minutes to the cooking time. "Back to the drawing board," he said. It's still a work in progress.
His lesson for those interested in starting their own trucks: "If you want to serve food from a truck, think twice. Or do sandwiches." The Pasta Flyer team is figuring out how to navigate the lower power levels available on a truck compared to a kitchen; they haven't actually managed to boil water on the truck yet. (Yes, it's actually possible to cook pasta in non-boiling water.)
But that didn't stop droves of people from walking straight from last night's lecture to the Pasta Flyer truck, conveniently parked outside and serving up a mix-and-match menu of pasta shapes, sauces, and toppings. (The pasta was in fact fully cooked and exhibited some elasticity.)
The truck remains in Cambridge, Massachusetts today and tomorrow before moving on to Providence and Philadelphia.
The Harvard Science & Cooking lecture series continues next Monday, September 29, with former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses and NASA project scientist Steve Howell giving a lecture mysteriously dubbed "gAstronomy." Seating for the free event is first come, first served, and more details can be found on the Harvard website.