I made pasta yesterday, and it was OK.
The pasta itself, homemade gemelli made with semolina and a little saffron, was lovely, although being fresh it lacked that dense chew of store-bought, dried gemelli. What I’m talking about is that what I put on the pasta was just… OK. I wanted to highlight the pretty golden orange colors of fall on a plate; thus the saffron in the dough, which makes the pasta more yellow that it might otherwise be. I roasted some golden beets, sauteed some fresh chanterelles, a gift from my friends at Earthy Delights, tossed in some toasted black walnuts for texture and a few pieces of smoked venison sausage, because I wanted some meaty smokiness in the dish.
This dish was the culinary equivalent of a “vomit draft” of an article or story, the draft where you just write out everything that’s on your mind or that attracts your fancy. Sometimes that first draft is wonderful. Mostly it’s not.
Welcome to my world. Every recipe I post to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook must work, and must work to my admittedly impossible standards. This is the pressure I put myself under, and it can actually cause me to lose sleep. Last night a thousand alternatives to the dish I’d made battered my mind as I tried to rest, laced with the knowledge that I have a limited amount of chanterelles to play with before they’re gone.
I liked the pasta, although in retrospect I should have made it a day earlier so it could dry fully. The walnuts, chopped parsley. walnut oil, honey vinegar and duck stock all went really well together and became the bites I sought after in the bowl. I had not expected this. I’d expected the chanterelles and the venison to be the stars, but they were, well, distracting.
The mushrooms were the same texture as the pasta, and the venison sausage didn’t work at all. Back to the drawing board. Maybe lardons of bacon or crumbled unsmoked sausage. Maybe crispy-fry the chanterelles so they don’t have the same slippery mouthfeel as the pasta. Lose the beets entirely. Even with these changes this dish might not be ready for prime time.
This happens a lot. You are reading this site looking, at least in part, for recipes that use wild ingredients — foraged foods, fish, game. By definition this site is all about food you can’t just go to the store and buy. You are trusting me to give you recipes that won’t waste these scarce resources. As you might imagine, this makes recipe testing a tense business. I have held recipes in development for three years before I got it right because I might only collect enough of whatever the ingredient is to get one shot at it each year. Deer tongues is a great example. They’re fantastic, like lamb’s tongues, but screw one up and you might not get another chance for a year. Yes, I can practice on lamb’s tongues, and in the case of pheasants or quail I do test with store-bought birds, but they are not the same.
Even when I do nail a dish on the first go, I start to immediately question myself afterwards. Can I make it even better? Can I repeat it exactly? This is one of the reasons why I update and revise my old recipes on this site. I am a better cook than I was in 2007, and I want my recipes to reflect that.
Nuance matters. A mallard is not a scoter, a scoter not a redhead, a redhead not a teal. Yet all are ducks. Regular cooks, even high-flying chefs, never have to deal with the dizzying array of species and subspecies and the intense disparity in diets that all wild food has. A chinook caught in Sacramento will be entirely different from the same fish caught off the coast of San Francisco — compound that with the fact that the same fish caught in spring or early summer will have been eating krill, not anchovies, which the late summer fish eat. See what I mean? Nuance.
A British roebuck is en entirely different animal than an Idaho mule deer, and a red stag isn’t an elk, although they’re pretty close. At least moose are pretty consistent, but then again I don’t have a tremendous amount of experience with moose, so maybe I’m wrong?
All of this sends me to the bookshelves, to the Internet. I find I must do an inordinate amount of research before I even pick up a knife. I am not the only one out there exploring subtle differences in food, and with the constant pressure of having a limited supply of an ingredient I find myself moving like a chess player: Slowly, methodically, thinking several steps ahead. This is not a bad thing, I’ve found.
Even still, shit happens. Flaws drive me to distraction. I don’t care how great a batch of sausages tastes, if the bind isn’t good I get mad. I’ve been close to tossing whole batches, but typically Holly will talk sense into me, allowing them to go to her coworkers or somesuch so they’re not wasted. Even that gives me heartburn, because my reputation is in those links. I don’t want anything substandard coming out of my kitchen. I know it’s silly, but I can’t help it. It’s what makes me who I am. And yes, I know full well that mistakes are learning experiences, too. It just sucks when $50 worth of wild mushrooms becomes a “teachable moment.”
I’ve changed a lot over the years I’ve written in this space. I have largely given up trying to be some sort of culinary artist. It’s a fool’s errand, and every attempt at it I’ve yet seen has been pretentious, silly or just not very fun to eat. I want to be as best at my craft — and craft it is, like making fine furniture or a custom rifle — as I can possibly be. If I make a burger, I want to make a damn good burger.
So that leads me back to my pasta dish. Restaurant cooks and corporate chefs often work their dishes over and over and over again until they get them right. I try to do the same thing, to the extent my materials and willpower allow. So I’ll go back to the kitchen and give it another go, and another, and possibly another — until I give up entirely or until the dish is worthy of you, dear reader. I owe you no less.