An Experiment in Improvisation

To me, the mark of a truly great chef is someone who can make their own recipes.  I’m not quite there (yet), but I do try to celebrate my small achievements and push “boundaries” when I can.  Take this week’s recipe, for example, during which I found a new respect for my meager (but growing) skills when it came time to planning dinner on the fly.

For a series of reasons, Mark and I had not had time for our usual Sunday grocery run, so each night’s dinner required a bit of improvisation.  Midweek, I found myself in need of a quick recipe that I could make for myself and then re-heat for Mark when he arrived home later.  Sitting at the office, I turned to my phone as the source from which I have found many a recipe.  I did the usual Epicurious and saved emails search.  But in the end, I settled on a photo I had taken of a recipe that had caught my eye while flipping through Giada’s Everyday Pasta:


IMG_1397This was a natural choice;  the only two ingredients I did not already have at home were pasta and dry white wine.  I made a plan to pick both up on the way home.

Stopping at the grocery store, I made my first substitution for the night.  Not being a fan of long pastas, I opted for Rotini over Angel Hair.  A bold move, I know.

Next, I stopped at a small wine shop in my neighborhood and picked up a bottle of dry white wine that fit both my price (cheap) and my recipe’s geography (Italian).  A wine expert I am not (yet).

My last stop was the next curve ball in the recipe.  My route took me past our local butcher and I suddenly got a craving for fresh Italian sausage.  On an impulse, I stopped and picked up a pound.

IMG_1389On the walk from the butcher to home, I came up with a plan of action.  Having incorporated sausage into pasta dishes before, I knew I could brown the sausage first, set it aside and then toss it back in shortly before the recipe was complete.  Easy – and a bold derivation for little ol’ me.

IMG_1216At home, I immediately got to work removing the casings from the sausage and throwing them in.  I hit a bit of a snag when I realized I had overlooked that the recipe called for parsley, which I did not have, and decided I’d just have to do without (shift number three).

Things were rolling right along with the pasta boiling and an onion, garlic, and sundried tomato paste heating up in the pan I had used for the sausage.  I went to open the wine and the unintended hitch presented itself.  The wine was bad.

At first I thought, maybe it just smells different from what I’m used to.  But then I noticed that the cork looked moldy.  Definitely not a good idea to experiment with mold (unless we’re talking cheese, which we are not).  And so down the drain went the wine.

This left quite a predicament.  The wine shop was closed – and a 10 minute walk away.  And dinner was almost ready, but in need of some liquid and flavor.  Then I remembered I had a bottle of IMG_1217$3 Marsala in the cabinet.  It was red, not white, which was an issue.  But I was cooking with tomatoes, so how bad could it be?  And while it was a cheap cooking wine, it was indeed “wine.”  (and only $7 cheaper than the Italian crap I had just dumped)  Most importantly, I had half a bottle – more than enough to meet the 1 cup the recipe called for.

Time was of the essence and my amateur chef voice said, “Do it.”  As I poured a cup into the pan, the voice came back with, “And if it doesn’t work, we order a pizza.”  Oh good,  I was making a backup plan already.

IMG_1220The wine bubbled (as the recipe demanded) for two minutes.  Then I added the pasta and sausage and heated it all together.  Between the sausage, the lack of parsley and the wine substitution, I was concerned.  But it sure looked legit.

IMG_1224The finishing touch was a dollop of goat cheese once it was plated.  I hoped that, worst case scenario, I could just add more cheese and mask it all.

In the end, the goat cheese mask was totally unnecessary.  Huzzah!

The ending result was rich, flavorful and filling.  Both the sausage and the red wine flavor really enhanced everything.  I have a hard time imagining what it would have tasted like with white wine and no meat.  But I’m not particularly interested in finding out, since this was such a success. Yes, this doctored-up version will be a repeat recipe.

It was so good, in fact, that I scarfed it down and forgot to take a picture before I started eating.  By the time I remembered this was for the blog, I was already entering the cleaning phase of my meal:


Oops.  You’ll just have to imagine it in all of its sausage, Marsala and goat cheese topped glory.  Or you can make it up yourself and give it a try!


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