Friday, April 16, 2010

Comfort Food: Penne alla Vodka - *Update at end of Post

So, last night, while I was feeling sorry for myself, I needed to make dinner. I didn't have a lot in the house, as I planned on going grocery shopping much earlier when the car refused to cooperate. So, by the time we got that taken care of, it was 7 pm.
I felt like pasta.
Now, pasta for me is comfort. While I prefer tomato and vegetables with my pasta, I have been known to eat less than desirable cheese sauces, meats and even mass produced "mac n' cheese" in a pinch. The sauce really makes the dish a meal vs. sustenance. But, I can get past any sauce when the warm pasta fills me up.
I have come to realize that this is a gift and I take comfort in that. So, last night, the idea was comfort.
Let me start by saying that I have NEVER had Penne alla vodka before. I have always thought of it as an oxymoron - vodka with pasta? Come on. It sounds like an excuse to ingest vodka!
But, my tennis partner (who is a very good cook and gives cooking lessons) described to me one dinner, where she served Penne alla Vodka.
I was slightly intrigued.

So, being in a vulnerable state, tonight was the night that I would make it. I had all the ingredients in the house, even vodka (I use it to make vanilla extract). So, I found a few recipes and I combined parts and tweaked them a bit, until I could smell the cooked dish. Hmmm. I thought, this will be pretty good.
So, I made the recipe and I think it is delicious. It is simple, spicy (as much as you like) and oh so good. The sauce is so different from regular tomato or marinara, yet it is familiar too. I like that. I needed that!
So, after eating it, I thought that there had to be some history to this marvelous dish. And I came to find out that this dish is about as old as I am!

While not an Italian classic, it is a dish that has roots in Italy, is rich with Italian flavors and then adds a surprise kick to it! Sounds like me...

My research, much of it according to Food Maven Arthur Schwartz asserts that the dish was created in the 1970's in Italy. It was the result of the vodka industry creating food contests in order to promote their product. Italian chefs were trying to come up with uses of incorporating vodka - typically Russian or Polish or Swedish - into their foods.
So, some industrious chef used vodka in place of wine and voila - Penne alla Vodka was born.
The dish caught on in New York City and was considered the beginning of "nouvelle cuisine" - or to use the 1990's term - fusion; combining distinct cuisines into one.

I made the dish using Skyy vodka. I admit, I purchased it because it was on sale and in the pretty cobalt blue bottle. But, there are other vodkas that are considered higher quality.
Absolut is a Swedish vodka made from grain. It is considered one of the most balanced tasting vodka.
Ketel One is from the Netherlands made of wheat. It has been made by the same family since the 1600s. It is considered one the best overall vodkas tied with Ciroc.
Ciroc is a French vodka made from grapes and is considered the "wine of vodka". It is more refined that classic vodkas and is perhaps the best for drinking, if you do that sort of thing.
Grey Goose is also a French vodka made from wheat that also gets kudos for taste.
Smirnoff is the best selling vodka in the world (think James Bond) that sounds Russian, but is distilled in the USA.

So, the choices for a good vodka are really limitless. Any vodka will work in the recipe, but each vodka brings with it some variations. The Skyy vodka that I used was quite good as well.
Oh, and for the brave at heart, try Absolut Peppar or any other pepper flavored vodka for even more of a kick in this recipe.

Recipe: Penne all Vodka

1 pound box penne
3 T olive oil
4 cloves smashed garlic
1 large can whole tomatoes
1 - 4 tsp dried red pepper flakes, based on your taste
4 T chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup or more grated Romano or Parmesean cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream (or half & half)

Cook 1 pound package of penne according to instructions.
While the water for the penne is heating, take out a deep skillet and heat up the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook for 45 seconds, but do not let the garlic brown.
Add the carton of tomatoes. Allow to come to a sizzle and add the red pepper flakes, basil and a few grinds of black pepper. Allow to cook for 5 minutes.
Mash up the tomatoes with a potato masher or immersion blender.
Add the vodka. Allow to cook for 2 -3 minutes.
Once you drain the pasta, add 1/4 cup cream to the sauce and stir to combine.
Stir in the pasta, sprinkle with Parmesean or Romano cheese and serve.

** Update - Dad wrote to me that he uses creme fraiche instead of cream when he makes this dish. He doesn't use vodka or any other alcohol and serves it with lobster ravioli. He finds that the flavor is from the herbs, tomatoes and creme fraiche. (Is your mouth watering, now?)


Ally said...

Thanks for sharing - I've never had it either and will have to try it now!

piera said...

Sounds Yummy:) I can't wait to try it.

piera said...

How much vodka do you add?