Making a special dish with ingredients on hand is a winner in any book. And most pasta dishes fall into that category.
But pasta with a tomato sauce is, well, just pasta with a tomato sauce. Using a fun-shaped pasta and upping the sauce game can take an ordinary bowl of pasta to another level.
Today’s recipe for Pasta Alla Vodka Sauce is one of my favorite to make. One thing I like about it is that it calls for ingredients that I always have on hand — canned tomatoes, dried pasta and a bottle of vodka.
The origins of this dish aren’t real clear. Some sources say it’s Italian, while others say it’s an Italian-American dish. What’s often cited is that the dish was created at Dante, a restaurant in Bologna. And others cite Luigi Franzese as creating a dish of Penne alla Russa, in which vodka was used to thin the sauce at the New York City restaurant Orsini. There’s also many references that indicate that James Doty, a graduate of Columbia University, created Penne Alla Vodka.
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Most versions of this dish use penne pasta. But I used a pasta called caserecce. This short pasta is similar to penne in size, but it’s narrow and twisted and rolled into a tube. Some sources say it’s best used with a chunky sauce or in baked casseroles. But you can use it for anything. I like it because of its size, about 2 inches in length, and because it’s not so mainstream. At the point where the pasta is rolled, forming a small tube, is where this spicy and creamy tomato sauce gets trapped.
Pasta Alla Vodka is all about the sauce. What’s the point of using vodka since most of it cooks off? It brings out and heightens the tomato flavor and aroma — yes, even canned tomatoes — as well as the flavors of cream, cheese and other ingredients.
You can’t go wrong with this dish. Serve it as a main dish on its own with some crusty bread. While the additions to this sauce are many, I’d stick to lighter ingredients like seafood and tender vegetables like peas or asparagus. Sauteed shrimp or pan seared scallops pair nicely.
And any vodka will do — there’s no need to use the good stuff, unless that’s all you have.
So cheers to today’s Pasta Alla Vodka sauce recipe. I hope you enjoy it.
Pasta Alla Vodka Sauce
1 pound favorite short-style pasta (campanelle, caserecce, penne)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 generous pinch of red pepper flakes
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
1 large shallot, peeled, sliced
3/4 cup vodka
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream
3/4 cup shredded or grated Parmesan Cheese
3 tablespoons fresh chopped Italian parsley
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cook the pasta according to package directions using a good amount of kosher salt in the water. Remove 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside. Drain the pasta.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat together the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the red pepper flakes and cook 1 minute. Add the garlic and saute about 30 seconds or until just fragrant. Stir in the vodka and cook about 3 minutes or until the vodka reduces. Stir in the tomatoes and continue cooking about 5 minutes.
Reduce heat to low and stir in the heavy cream. Simmer about 5 minutes, then stir in the Parmesan cheese and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add the cooked pasta to the sauce, tossing to combine. If the sauce seems too thick, add in some of the reserved pasta cooking water.
Portion out into individual serving bowls, garnish with more Parmesan and parsley if desired.
Yield: Serves 4