Several years back, the women’s ministry at my church had a dinner at a newly-opened Italian restaurant in town. One of the dishes served was some sort of pasta with vodka sauce. I’d never had it, and it was delicious. Immediately, that sparked in me the need to figure out how to make it myself. My penne alla vodka (I always make it with penne; don’t ask me why) has undergone a metamorphosis over the years, and this so far is the best it’s been. Perhaps I’ll make more changes as time wears on, and if they are better than this, well, wow. I guess you could consider this “my recipe”. I have taken bits and pieces from other people’s recipes and meshed them together to make the sauce that I like best. This recipe will serve four.
Here are the ingredients: 28 oz. can of tomatoes, vodka, heavy cream, onion, garlic, olive oil….and, not pictured, salt, pepper, and sugar.
Start by heating a couple of tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. While the oil heats up, chop up a small onion, then saute it until it’s soft and turning translucent. Mince a large garlic clove (or 2 small ones) very finely (I used my press) and add it in the last 30 seconds of cooking the onion.
While the onion is cooking, go ahead and set a pot of water to boil. It’s important to note a couple of things about cooking pasta: (1) you should always cook pasta in lots of water to allow it lots of room to move around and keep it from sticking together; and (2) you should add plenty of salt to the water! This is the only chance you have to season your pasta.
Next, the tomatoes. I used whole tomatoes-you could use crushed or diced if you like, but I prefer whole. Since they are less processed, they have a fresher taste. Another thing-and this is important-I always use San Marzano tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes are imported from the San Marzano region of Italy. The flavor of these tomatoes is not to be believed! Just be sure you don’t fall for the knock-offs. San Marzano tomatoes come from Italy. Be sure to check! I bought these at Publix. Anyway, I use my hands to crush up the tomatoes. You could also whirl them in the food processor. Add them to the onions and let them come to a bubble.
Once the sauce is bubbling pretty good, cut the heat and pour in half a cup of vodka. Don’t be afraid to cook with liquor! Just like I pour wine freely in my cooking, I am happy to pour in some spirits, too. Vodka brightens and intensifies the flavor of the tomatoes. Turn the heat back on and let it bubble until it reduces somewhat and is not too “liquid-y”. Most of the alcohol will cook off.
Next, a cup of cream. Yes, cream. Heavy cream. Just like you shouldn’t fear the vodka, you shouldn’t fear the cream! It’s delicious. I mean, how often do you add heavy cream (please disregard this question in a few days when I post another recipe using the other half of this carton!)? Just do it!
When I pour in the cream, I salt my pasta water and add the pasta. I use whole wheat penne, which cooks for 7 or 8 minutes. I just test it to see if it’s “al dente”. At this point, I add in the basil. Usually, I use fresh basil, but today I had this frozen basil from last year’s herb garden. Did you know you can freeze basil? Just puree it with a little water and freeze it in ice trays. I used 2 “cubes”. Stir it in, then salt and pepper to taste. If your sauce is really acidic, add a little sugar. I threw in a couple of teaspoons. Drain the pasta when it’s done and mix with the sauce. Finally, grate in some parmesan. This, of course, is the real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Plate it up-with more cheese, of course. This is my favorite pasta sauce!