When I told my husband I was making Penne with Pumpkin & Pancetta for dinner last weekend, he reached for the take-out menus the second he thought I wasn't looking. Unsure of what I would be serving - I mean, who pairs pumpkin and pancetta! - he later admitted to hatching a back-up meal plan. Sure, I'll be the first to admit that I've cooked up my share of questionable fare. It would be naive to think that everything I made was perfect all the time, but with this dish I was sure I had a winner on my hands. He was clearly wary of this confidence, but I knew I was right.
I am lucky to be married to such an adventurous eater, but even he has his limits. After a long day at work and chasing after a toddler he wants to chow down on a filling meal, not tenderly pick at mystery food in an effort to please me. Also, I am in the throws of teaching a toddler how to enjoy good food, something that is no easy task. To make it all work for me I try to make delicious, but practical, meals. We eat hearty lasagnas, seasonal vegetables and sweet desserts, not hand-rolled sushi or caviar on toast. I like to put new twists on the basics to make them even better than before.
Tessa Kiros is one of my favorite cookbook authors and I adore Twelve, her book of seasonal Tuscan recipes. Each section is arranged by month, providing delicious inspiration for dishes that can be made with local farmers market foods at a particular time of year. Since the seasons in Tuscany are much like those in the Northeast she has many fall recipes containing pumpkin - a vegetable that apparently thrives just about anywhere. When I was flipping through the other week I noticed this particular recipe because it gave a new twist to our favorite pairing of pancetta in tomato sauce. Tessa's addition of pumpkin seemed outrageous, and genius. Pumpkin is the perfect addition to a traditional Italian meal, its natural sweetness balances the acidic tomatoes and salty pork.
When I cook with pumpkin I use organic pure puree. I love the idea of skinning and cubing my own pumpkins to make puree but it rarely, if ever, happens. So, when it came to making this sauce, while Tessa calls for thinly shaved fresh pumpkin, I decided to use some canned puree instead. Also, given the rule of constant chaos with a toddler in the house, I forgot to buy penne but had an unopen box of fusilli on hand. While I think penne would be best for this dish, the fusilli was an excellent substitute - the spiral curls were great for absorbing the sauce.
In order to save myself time in the evening I prepared the sauce while my daughter napped in the afternoon. Like most tomato based sauces, making it ahead of time was a great decision. After it had simmered and reduced I simply left it, covered, on the stove until dinner. This allowed the ingredients to mingle and develop into more complex flavors then if it had been enjoyed fresh. It also gave me time to enjoy little slurps of the incredibly tasty result of combining pumpkin and tomato. The salty sweet taste was so delicious I could hardly wait for dinner.
Pulling this all together at the end of the day was a cinch. I reheated the sauce, tossed it with piping hot pasta and added a healthy dose of parmesan cheese. After a skeptical first bite my husband declared is "fabulous, delicious and brilliant," a ringing endorsement that he never casually bestows. (I think this was partially due to his relief of not having to order from the seedy Chinese place down the street.) My daughter added her own type of applause, devouring noodle after noodle without saying a word. At the realization that I had won them over despite his skepticism, I have to say, I felt a little smug. Not every day is filled with successes like this, and, like any home cook, I will take it while I can.
Penne with Pumpkin & Pancetta
adapted from Twelve, by Tessa Kiros
1 lb. Penne (Fusilli also works well)
3 T. good quality olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 lb. pancetta, finely chopped
6 oz. pure pumpkin puree
14 oz. crushed tomatoes, with juices
1 1/2 c. water
1 c. freshly grated parmesan cheese
Kosher Salt to taste
Freshly Ground Pepper to taste
1. In a deep saucepan or 2 quart dutch oven heat oil and saute onion until soft and fragrant. Then, add the chopped pancetta and saute until it is browned and crispy.
2. Next, add tomatoes and pumpkin puree to the pan. Stir everything together and then add water. All sauce to simmer for 30 minutes, or until thickened and piping hot.
3. Meanwhile, cook pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and place in bowls for serving.
4. Remove sauce from the stove and toss it into the pasta. Then, add cheese to each bowl and toss again. Serve immediately.
Naptime Recipe Props: This recipe would be great to experiment with. If you are interested in new flavors try adding different herbs and spices like warm cinnamon, or crushed red pepper. The possibilities are endless, and delicious.
Naptime Stopwatch: It is important to simmer the sauce for 30 minutes because it cooks the pumpkin and releases the flavors of the tomatoes. It is not hard work, and you'll be glad you did this come dinner time, when all you have to do is boil pasta.
Naptime Reviews: I won over even the harshest critics with this dish, which says a lot. I'll bet you can do the same in your household as well.