Penne alla Vodka
Hunger is the Best Sauce
When I was young and began living on my own, I regularly ate a concoction that combined a can of condensed mushroom soup, a can of tuna, a package of frozen peas, and raw chopped onion, heated until bubbling and served over cooked spaghetti. I was working as an archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service, spending my days climbing up and down the steep hills around Roanoke, Virginia, alone with backpack and shovel, recording signs of historic and prehistoric occupation. It was a hard day’s labor, sustained only with a canteen of water and a midday sandwich. By evening, when I walked in the door of my sparsely furnished apartment, I was ravenous. The sauce was made in a single pan, and I liked it because I could whip it up in less time than it took for the pasta water to come to a boil. They say “hunger is the best sauce,” and hunger, ease of preparation, and the fact that it was very cheap to make, made this my go-to dinnertime staple.
Pasta, Tomatoes, and Vodka
In my mid-twenties I discovered penne alla vodka, which takes no more time to prepare – and involves no more expense – than the tuna-mushroom-peas sauce, and which tastes infinitely better. The combination of tomatoes, cream, and parmesan cheese is enhanced by a pinch of red pepper flakes and the subtle tweak of vodka. In the flaming of the vodka in this dish, most of the alcohol is burned off, though not 100%.
I started a family, and penne alla vodka was in my regular rotation of easy meals. When our children ordered it in restaurants my husband and I had to reassure our servers that neither the hot pepper flakes nor the vodka would deter nor harm them. The general consensus among pediatricians is that such a small amount of alcohol is left behind, it is not harmful to children of any age. However, consult your family pediatrician to know what’s best for your child.
I included the recipe for penne alla vodka in my cookbook, Dinner for Eight: 40 Great Dinner Party Menus for Friends and Family.
Subsequently I received a strange and somewhat amusing letter from a reader who complained that the recipe had made her “drunk.” This didn’t seem possible, but I responded immediately, asking if she had followed the recipe exactly. She replied that yes she certainly had, and that she and her guests had discussed their concerns about the vodka in the recipe while they had cocktails before dinner.
Penne alla Vodka: The Recipe
To make this dish efficiently, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil, Meanwhile, in another large pot over low heat, melt a stick (113 grams/8 tablespoons) of salted butter. Don’t let it brown. Add 2.5 to 5 ml (1/2 to 1 teaspoon) of hot red pepper flakes, and 177 ml (3/4 cup) of vodka. Light the dish carefully, touching a flame to the surface. The combination of alcohol and fat (the butter) could send flames shooting up briefly, so be sure to stand back.
When the flames die down, add a 794 grams (28-ounce) can of tomatoes, drained of most of its liquid, and break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.
By now the pasta water should be boiling. Stir in a 454 grams (1 pound) box of penne, and go back to the sauce.
Add 237 ml (1 cup) heavy cream to the sauce, stir well, and remove from heat.
When the pasta is cooked al dente (still firm, but with no trace of crunch), drain it well and add it to the pot of sauce (or return it to its pan and pour in the sauce). Add 237 ml (1 cup) of freshly-grated parmesan cheese. If you are feeling flush, use Parmigiano Reggiano, otherwise use any freshly-grated parmesan (never the kind that doesn’t need refrigeration). Mix well so that the cheese melts into the sauce. Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. A handful of finely chopped parsley (curly or flat-leafed) mixed in looks pretty and adds a touch of fresh flavor. Have a dish of parmesan to pass at the table, and serve with a green salad and some crusty bread.