We had the opportunity to travel on a family vacation to France back in 2009.…
In my last few posts, I’ve talked about our trips to Rao’s restaurants. (If you missed these posts, check out Part 1 and Part 2.)My favorite pasta dish there is the Penne Alla Vodka – Penne in a Tomato Cream Sauce with Vodka. From reviewing some other writers, this recipe seems to have a good bit of controversy. Like other Italian dishes, it appears that the origin of this dish is “unclear.” Some claim it has Italian roots, others claim it is an Italian-American creation and yet others claim it originated from the Vodka companies to try to sell more product. Bottom line for me – doesn’t really matter where it came from, it’s just really tasty!
In reading both Shirley Corriher and Harold McGee, there are several points about the vodka. Shirley points out that many flavor compounds are soluble in water and fat, but there are others that are only soluble in alcohol (Vanilla extract anyone? ). Harold talks about alcohol and aromas from the dish. He discusses how different concentrations of alcohol in a dish can affect the flavor and aroma profiles. So the first question is, “Is the Vodka really needed?” The short (smart aleck) answer is, “Kinda hard to have a Vodka sauce without Vodka.” After all, Vodka doesn’t really have a taste like some of the other spirits do.
The long answer is “Yes, you can make a tomato cream sauce without Vodka.” However, when small concentrations of alcohol are present with the tomatoes, some magic happens with the taste and smell of the sauce. My vote is to leave it in….(One Note here – if you would rather buy it in a jar, the Rao’s Vodka sauce is widely available and very good. Check your favorite grocery store.)
The recipe I use is a little heavier on the cream than some others – you can play around with the amounts of liquids used to get to a balance that you like.
Let’s get started…..
There are not really that many ingredients, so it is important that you use very good ones. I selected Bama Vodka – now to be honest, when I was buying it at the ABC store, I saw the Bama label and thought I would support the producers in the state. Later at home when I read the label closer, I saw it was produced in Florida….oh well….).
The canned tomatoes are also critical. I like to use San Marzano tomatoes. You have to be careful because there is a San Marzano tomato varietal that is grown in many places. There is also the area of San Marzano “on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius” where San Marzano tomatoes were born and are still grown. This is one of my favorite brands, but out of stock until this year’s shipment arrives (Only available locally at the European Market on Bob Wallace – when it’s in stock). I’ve also found other brands of San Marzano Tomatoes at Kroger, Earthfare, William-Sonoma and Fresh Market – they aren’t always there, but I find them more often than not.
Right off the bat we have an optional ingredient to decide on – do you want to add a meat to the sauce? (Note: In the sauce for the pictures below, I didn’t add the meat….) You want to add something like Pancetta where you can render out some fat as you cook.
To get started – if you are using the Pancetta, dice it up then sauté in the skillet. When it is done, remove it from the pan. If there is enough fat to sauté the onions, great – if not, just add some olive oil.
Add the onions and sauté until they are soft. Add the garlic and cook for about another minute.
Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add the vodka and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Add the cream, salt and sugar, mix well, bring to a simmer for about 15 minutes. It will reduce some and that is OK. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Meanwhile, prepare the pasta per the package directions.
This picture is right after the cream is added.
This picture is after it has simmered for an additional 15 minutes.
Now we have another decision – if you don’t like your sauce “chunky,” no problem – puree it until smooth. If you don’t mind it, then your sauce is done. Add the pancetta back in and stir well. Add pasta to the sauce and serve immediately. Of course you need the fresh grated Parmigiano cheese on top! Now enjoy the Penne alla Vodka.
Olive Oil (For sautéing onions)
1 small onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, pressed
1 Can (28 ounces) Tomatoes – San Marzano if possible
½ Cup Vodka
2 Cups Heavy Cream
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Fresh Ground Pepper to taste
1 – 1 ½ Pounds Penne Pasta (Or your favorite shape)
6 ounces pancetta, Optional
Grated Parmigiano-Regiano Cheese
If using whole tomatoes, pour can into a bowl and crush by hand. Be sure to remove and remaining skin or stem pieces.
If using pancetta, sauté in the skillet until done. Add olive oil (if needed) to pan and heat over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft – usually, about 8 minutes.
Add pressed garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes.
Add the vodka and cook an additional 10 minutes.
Add cream, salt and sugar and simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Check seasoning for salt and add pepper at the end. If you would like your sauce smooth, then puree, otherwise, don’t bother.
If using the pancetta, return to the pan.
Add prepared pasta to pan and serve. Sprinkle the grated Pamigiano-Regiano cheese over the penne.