When I first started to cook, recipes were holy to me and whatever the recipe writer stated was gospel. Adding in an extra teaspoon of salt was something I wouldn't have dared, let alone adding in something like a chilli pepper, or leaving it out for that matter. Back then, experimenting with flavors felt like trying to put together IKEA furniture without a manual. It was much safer to follow the instructions of the 'expert', so that's exactly what I did.
I still have fond, funny and sometimes even downright unpleasant memories about following recipes and teaching myself to cook. The better memories include watching Julia Child on PBS and making my first pasta primavera when I was 12. The unpleasant ones include a very expensive turkey disaster on Thanksgiving day and following a recipe for pumpkin pasta which looked great in the magazine, but instead tasted like one of those mushy baby food purees you start giving your kids when they move on to solids.
If you asked me which was worse, the turkey that ended up in the gutter or that first disastrous pumpkin meal, I'd probaby choose the latter. I think it has something to do with the fact that I felt let down by the recipe, whereas with the turkey failure, I reckoned it was nobody's fault but my own.
Many novice cooks still make the same mistake as I did. Mainly, they allow their lack of experience get in the way of tuning into their taste intuition and instead, give all the blame to the recipe writer. That's something I had to come to terms with when I started writing recipes myself. I realised there would probably be those who would love what I created and those who would hate it.
Taste, whether it be for food or for cars, is a very personal thing. When you welcome someone to your table and serve them a special meal, it's normal to take into consideration what they enjoy and what they won't or can't eat. As a recipe writer, however, that's a whole different story. Recipes are works of art, those who create them are the artists and the most important tool to create them with is taste.
The other day as I was walking through the market, I suddenly remembered that infamous pumpkin pasta and decided that it was finally time to make peace with it. I wanted to make it again. No recipe this time, just my own personal taste. Here is what I came up with and as much as I enjoyed it, I can only hope that you will too...
Pumpkin Penne My Way
100g smoked lardons
knob of butter
1 tbsp mild olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
a small pumpkin (approximately 800g), peeled, deseeded and chopped into small chunks12 sage leaves, finely chopped
salt and plenty of freshly-cracked pepper
100ml dry white wine
300g cooked penne
good handful or two of grated parmesan cheese
Fry the lardons in a large, dry frying pan for about 2-3 minutes and transfer them to a bowl, leaving some of the oils still in the pan. Add the butter and olive oil and gently sweat the garlic and the shallots for about 3 minutes. Turn up the heat just a bit and add the pumpkin, sage, salt and plenty of cracked pepper. Give everything a good stir and add the wine. Cover the pan and cook until the pumpkin is tender (10-15 minutes). In the meantime, cook your penne according to package instructions. I do advise you to always subtract just a minute or too. Believe it or not, most of our pasta is actually overcooked! When the penne is ready, reserve a small glassful of the cooking water. Once the pumpkin is cooked, add the penne along with the reserved water, the lardons and the parmesan. Give everything a gentle stir and serve in warm bowls. You might want to put some extra parmesan on the table to grate in here and there.