It's a well-known fact in the Handyverger household that I am physically incapable of following a recipe. I always start out with the best of intentions, with my recipe printed out and in hand, all my ingredients bought and ready to start. And then I start. And then partway through, I look at what I'm cooking and say to myself, "Hm, I wonder what would happen if I added..."
I'm going to hang my head in shame now, since I've been sternly told more than once that the first time you make a recipe, you should follow it to the letter - improvise the next time. I just can't help myself! I have poor cooking impulse control!
So, tonight, I improvised on a pasta dish I've made in the past, Val's Proscuitto, Asparagus and Parmesan Spaghetti. I've varied the recipe a bit each time I made it. It's particularly delicious if you take the time to caramelize the onions first, and I've also made it with shallots in place of the onions. I've added more garlic. More mushrooms. Made it without the prosciutto. Made it without the heavy cream - light cream works decently in this recipe, but fat free half and half, less so. I'm still working out the kinks in making it a lower fat recipe. I've also made it omitting the cream altogether and just adding in parmesan cheese. All the variations have been fantastic.
I was going to make this pasta for my mother's visit right before we went to Alaska, but I couldn't find any decent asparagus in the grocery stores (in fairness, it's very much out of season in New England). I started thinking about more seasonal food and then it hit me - butternut squash! That was the first time I improvised my Harvest Pasta. My mother helped me cook (and by help, I mean watched), and she remarked that watching me cook was like watching a dance. I decided not to ask her what type of dance. She might've said the Funky Chicken.
Tonight, my shallots were a bit mushy, so a little more tweaking occurred. I can't give an exact recipe, since I rarely measure things once I've made something once or twice. Basically, you mince your garlic (I used 3 cloves), and if you want onions or shallots, caramelize them in olive oil over medium heat along with the garlic. Add a container of pre-sliced mushrooms (or slice them yourself), and sautee until the mushrooms are soft and golden around the edges (in other words, cooked!). Use either a 3 or 4 oz container of prosciutto, torn into smaller pieces, and add to the pan. Cook until ... cooked. (I'm so helpful, right?)
Once the prosciutto is cooked, add your squash. I used frozen "winter squash" that comes already mashed up, rather than cut in cubes. If you're not lazy like me, you could cook your own butternut squash for this. I find that using the pureed squash helps give the sauce a creamy texture without adding heavy cream, though. Stir the squash in thoroughly, and try not to be too horrified at the unnatural shade of orange your sauce is. At this point, I added some golden raisins to the mix, and about 1/2 cup of fat free creamer to thin the sauce out a bit.
This is where it gets fun (for me). I seasoned the sauce to taste with cinnamon, onion powder, black pepper, chili powder, curry powder and a few fresh basil leaves. The key is to add only a little at a time, and to learn what tastes "go" together. I used a decent amount of cinnamon, a good bit less of curry powder, a hint of black pepper and the tiniest smidge of chili powder. I also added about 1/4 cup shredded asiago and 1/4 cup shredded parmesan. You might want to add salt here, as well, but I prefer not to add salt to recipes in the cooking stage as much as possible. I prefer to season at the table, and that way, each person can adjust to his own tastes.
While you're doing all this, you should have been boiling water and cooking pasta (oops, should have mentioned that earlier!). For something with a heavy sauce like this, I like to use a good, dense pasta. Angel hair pasta was great with the asparagus & parmesan version, but I used cavatappi for this one.
Once the pasta is ready, drain it and return it to a large bowl. Spoon your sauce on top, and stir thoroughly. I cut up some grape tomatoes and added them to my pasta, and sprinkled a little extra Parmesan cheese on top.
Feel free to send any questions along! And don't be afraid to play with your food a little.
Alderberry Hill's Make the Scene Monday