I was at a loss on Sunday for what to make for dinner. The boy (Matt) was coming over and all I knew was that I had a major pasta craving. The weather was wretched Sunday night and having already gone to the Wintermarket, I was done with the whole “going outside” thing.
I scrounged around my kitchen. In my pasta drawer, I had half of a box of rigatoni, some lasagna sheets, half of a bag of fusilli lunghi (love, love, love it, very underrated pasta shape…maybe because it’s not “real” or classic), and a full box of penne. Alright, I could work with penne, I thought. But I’m a stickler for matching sauces to the appropriate pasta shapes. For me, saucy, non-chunky sauces or oil-based sauces go best with thin strands like spaghetti or angel hair, or large tubular pastas like rigatoni or tortiglioni. Creamy, non-chunky sauces (think carbonara) go well with wider strands like fettucine or linguini. “Sauceless” chunky sauces with things like veggies (i.e. a primavera) are better with penne or farfalle. Regular fusilli or gemelli for pasta salad in my house.
What I ended up throwing together Sunday night was penne alla vodka, a classic Italian-American favorite found in most pizza joints and old-fashioned Italian American restaurants (like the kind with checkered tablecloth and chianti bottle candles). Despite its inauthenticity, I love it. The dish is a delicious balance of sweet, savory, creamy, cheesy, and a little hint of je ne sais quoi from the alcohol. Meanwhile, penne alla vodka defies all of the “rules” I just mentioned. It’s a non-chunky, cream-based sauce and yet I pair it with penne. I’ve also been known to do a fusilli lunghi alla vodka, which worked well too. Just goes to show you that these rules are just a general guideline, not Gospel.
The other great thing about this dish is that I typically have all the ingredients already; thus no need to leave the house.
Vodka? Check. Heavy cream? Check. Parmiggiano cheese? Check. Penne? Check. Tomato sauce? Check. Either ham or bacon or proscuitto or pancetta? Check.
I put a little twist in my version by adding halved grape tomatoes. I just feel like the dish can get heavy and the tomatoes add a little texture and great bursts of tangy, sweet freshness amidst the sea of cheesy cream.
Hello vodka, old friend
Penne alla Vodka
1 lb. penne (or some other tubular pasta or fusilli lunghi)
3 cups tomato sauce (check out my previously posted recipe)
1/2 cup, approx., heavy cream or half and half
1 1/2 pints of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup vodka (unflavored, naturally, save the Stoli O for your holiday party)
1/2 lb ham, pancetta, bacon, or proscuitto, cubed
1-1 1/2 cups Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese, grated
1-2 pinches red chili flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper
- Heat up a deep sautee pan or frying pan over a medium-high flame for 2-3 minutes.
- Pour enough olive oil in the pan to lightly coat the bottom (probably about 3 tablespoons). Let oil heat up for another minute. Test the heat of the pan by dropping in a cube of ham. If it sizzles on contact, the pan’s ready to go. If it just sits there, lolling around in the oil, wait another minute. Skip this entire step if you’re using bacon. It’s so fatty you don’t need additional oil.
- Put all the ham in the pan. Break up any pieces that are stuck together. Move the ham around until all the cubes are spread out in one layer over the bottom of the pan. Now, don’t touch it. You want them to brown and fry up a bit on both sides, not steam. This is especially true if you use bacon.
- After 3-4 minutes on one side, the ham should be crisp. Stir the ham to cook the other side. This should take another 2-3 minutes. Again, hands off until it’s done!
- Once the ham is all browned and your home smells like bacon, lower the heat to medium-low ad toss in the tomatoes. Let the tomatoes soften and break down a little, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. If you used bacon you might want to pour some of the excess fat out before you add the tomatoes.
- Add the tomato sauce, vodka, and chili flakes. Let the sauce come to a bubbling simmer. Then lower the heat to low and let it continue to cook for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, boil the penne according to the directions on the package.
- Pour in the cream and stir to combine everything. Simmer the sauce for another 20-25 minutes to cook off the alcohol in the vodka and to let the sauce reduce down/thicken.
- After the 20-25 minutes have elapsed, stir in the 2 cups of grated cheese a little bit at a time.
- Season with fresh cracked pepper. At this point taste for salt, season with salt as desired. If you feel like there’s still too much alcohol flavor, simmer on low in five minute increments until it achieves the alcohol level you like.
- Gently pour the penne into the pan with the sauce and mix carefully so it doesn’t splatter.
- Serve with some extra grated cheese, if desired.
Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and fat ass bubble
If alcohol’s really not your thing or you don’t have any on hand, no worries. Just omit it, simmer the sauce for a combined 15-20 minutes instead of 30-35 minutes and call it penne alla pink! Or penne al sugo rosa (translation: pink sauce)! Or penne pepto!
Ohhh yeah, that’s the stuff