June 01, 2003
Penne with Vodka Cream Sauce
posted by Nadia

This morning, we went to the summer festival down at the Italian Market (sponsored, apparently, by Sorrento cheeses). The festivities included the usual Italian Market hubbub, a couple of karaoke machines and small stages, inflated prices, and huge crowds. We had, unfortunately, just eaten before going there, and so didn't have room in our bellies for much more than some crab cakes, jug wine, cannolis, and funnel cake. But the sidewalks were crowded with even more vendors than usual, hawking hoagies and meatballs and mussels and pasta and octopus salad and sangria and pastries and all sorts of delicious-smelling things.

Upon getting home, I decided to make something nice and comforting in the Italian-American spirit for dinner -- penne with vodka cream sauce. One of the perks of my new job is that I'm constantly going out to dinner and lunch at nice restaurants; however, after eating out for two full weeks, I've gotten a bit numb to the barrage of exciting dishes. So you can understand why I was in the mood for something cozy. We hadn't had pasta in quite a long time, and penne alla vodka seemed like just the thing. For some reason, though, most of the recipes I found seemed to completely misunderstand the nature of the dish. One called for boiling down a cup of vodka to just a tablespoon before even adding the tomatoes; another -- obviously written by someone with a weakness for Bloody Marys -- said the sauce should be simmered for only a minute or two after adding 3/4 of a cup of vodka.

In case you don't know, the logic behind putting vodka in tomato sauce is as follows (with apologies for my massacre of basic scientific principles): Tomatoes contain some sort of delicious flavor molecule that is alcohol-soluble. We can't taste this flavor in a typical tomato sauce, which is water-based. On the other hand, if we add vodka or wine or Bailey's Irish Cream to the tomato sauce, the alcohol releases the delicious flavorness into the sauce, and your dinner guests will ooh and ahh with delight. Unlike wine (and, obviously, Bailey's Irish Cream), vodka will provide oomph to your sauce without adding any other unwanted flavors, and so is a perfect choice for making a "basic" tomato sauce that tastes much better than anything coming from a can. Obviously, the alcohol needs to be boiled off before serving, or else you're left with a truly revolting 80-proof sauce; which is why I scoffed at the recipe above calling for 2 minutes of simmering. On the other hand, if you boil off nearly all the alcohol before adding your tomatoes, there's not going to be enough alcohol left to release the flavor into the sauce. Clearly some sort of compromise is in order. I ended up adapting a recipe from Lidia Bastianich, and Carl and I were very pleased with the results. Serve with a bottle of Chianti and you've got Little Italy in your living room.

Vodka Cream Sauce for Pasta
(adapted from Lidia Bastianich)

One 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) with their liquid
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, peeled and gently smashed
1 shallot, minced
Crushed hot red pepper
3/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream

Pour the tomatoes and their liquid into the food processor and process the tomatoes just until they are finely chopped. Set aside.

Put the olive oil and garlic cloves in a cold pan, and turn the heat up to medium. In a few minutes, when the garlic is just golden, add the shallots and sautée briefly, then add the tomato puree to the pan. Season with red pepper flakes and some salt. Pour in the vodka, lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer, and simmer, stirring gently, until the alcohol has boiled off. If you like, pick out the garlic cloves now.

When your pasta is almost ready, add the cream, taste and season, and toss your pasta into the sauce to finish cooking for the last minute while the sauce thickens slightly. Sprinkle with freshly chiffonaded basil and grated parmesan cheese before serving.