Vacation alla Vodka

I’m off from work this week, and it was supposed to be a big cooking week. I got off to a great start—chicken pot pie, two kinds of cookies, the big snowed in meal, pasta alla norma—and then I got sick on Monday night. The kind of sick where I ate mostly applesauce on Tuesday. So obviously there wasn’t much cooking going on, and then we went out for Mexican food on Wednesday night, so I didn’t cook until last night, when I made vodka sauce.

Vodka sauce—usually penne alla vodka, but I’ve seen other variations—is really popular on Long Island, but I’ve had a hard time finding it here. I understand that it’s a fairly recent arrival on the Italian culinary scene and at this point is probably more American than Italian, but then again, most of what we consider Italian food on this side of the pond could be described that way, and who am I to make judgments? For those who haven’t spent a lot of time eating at pizza-place-in-the-front-Italian-restaurant-in-the-back joints in strip malls on Long Island, vodka sauce is a tomato cream sauce. The undertones are different from what you’d get if you used white wine (as in this sauce that I make all the time), but it’s a subtle difference. I’d say the dish has more of a kick and less of a rounded taste, if that makes sense. Vodka sauce also often has crushed red pepper flakes, and that helps too.

I read a few recipes for vodka sauce and decided to wing it, using the template of the white wine and bacon/pancetta cream sauce. I made one mistake: too much vodka. Oy. It didn’t boil off completely and was noticeable in the sauce, which was otherwise very good. At least I used Belvedere and not the cheap stuff. I’m reducing the quantity in the written recipe, but I will experiment with it a bit more.

Vodka Sauce

approx. 2 tablespoons regular olive oil
3-4 cloves minced garlic
a few shakes red pepper flakes
1 medium onion, diced
28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
a few tablespoons torn flat-leaf Italian parsley*

Heat the regular olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and stir, cooking about 1 minute, until the garlic becomes aromatic and starts to turn golden. Add the onion and cook until it softens and becomes translucent, 5-8 minutes.**

Add the tomatoes and stir to incorporate. Add the vodka and stir again. Cook for 10-15 minutes or until the sauce has thickened a bit and the vodka has stopped tasting overly vodka-y (taste it carefully).

Stir in the cream and let the sauce bubble a minute more. Stir in the parmesan and cook until the pasta is ready.***

Pour the sauce over the cooked pasta in a large bowl and fold with a spoon to incorporate. Top with the parsley and serve. This should be enough sauce for a one-pound box of pasta.****

*Chopping parsley with a knife is a pain in the ass. I tear it with my fingers instead once I’ve washed it. It’s much easier, and you don’t bruise the parsley. You could also chop it with kitchen scissors. I think this is what my mom does with parsley from the garden.

**Maybe it’s me, but the time it takes the onion to get translucent seems to vary greatly. Use your judgment.

***Is it me or is it annoying that pasta sauce recipes tell you that you should be cooking pasta, and how to cook it? What else are you supposed to do with the sauce? The tricky thing is getting the timing right—I start the water before the sauce but don’t throw the pasta in until the sauce has as much time left to cook as the pasta would take to cook.

****Like I said, this is often served over penne, but I’ve seen rigatoni many times on menus, and we like rotini. Any kind of “shape” pasta will do (as opposed to a “strand” pasta like linguine or spaghetti).

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