Penne Alla Vodka

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So, in buying alcohol for our New Year’s party, I either overdid it or I didn’t overdo it in the right way. Meaning: we couldn’t have had enough Champagne or Prosecco (bottles disappeared in less time than it took to open new ones), but–for some reason–the two giant bottles of vodka I bought (in mirrored disco-ball packaging) went mostly unconsumed. Which meant, the next day–Thursday–after we cleaned up, I stood face-to-face with more vodka than I knew what to do with.

Actually, it didn’t take long to figure out what to do with it: as the saying goes, “When life throws you vodka, make Penne Alla Vodka.” I love Penne Alla Vodka. I once walked from the East Village to the West Village in 8 degree weather to get a bowl at Pepe Rosso. Their Penne Alla Vodka has pancetta in it, and may be one of the best and fastest foods to eat when you’re freezing and starving in the West Village. But now I was home, hungover, and eager to use up as much vodka as I could on a classic American-Italian staple. In terms of using up vodka, I didn’t do too well–it takes only 1/4 of a cup to make the recipe; but in terms of making dinner, I hit the ball out of the park.

The recipe comes from my favorite TV chef, Lydia Bastianich, who shares her recipe on Epicurious (click here). It’s easier than you might think; you just need a 35-oz can of Italian plum tomatoes, 1 pound penne, 10 cloves of peeled garlic, crushed red pepper, then the vodka (1/4 cup), heavy cream (1/2 cup), some chopped parsley and some grated Parmesan.

The key to the whole thing is timing. You get your big pot of water boiling first. Then, while it’s boiling, you add the tomatoes to the food processor and whir until they’re all broken up:

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This was a step I wasn’t so sure about: was it really necessary? I’m always cautious about unnecessary steps, especially since we don’t have a dishwasher; would it be worth it to have to clean the food processor, just to pulverize the tomatoes?

The answer is: yes. Pulverizing the tomatoes makes the sauce smoother and, thereby, somehow more refined than your usual chunky tomato sauce. So do those extra dishes: it’s worth it.

Once your tomatoes are all blended, it’s basically just a quick juggling act at the stove.

When the water is boiling, salt it and add the penne. Now you have to act fast because that penne will be done in 8 to 10 minutes.

Heat a skillet, add olive oil to coat it (about 1/4 cup) and then drop in the 10 garlic cloves (which are still whole, but out of their skins.)

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Saute them until they’re golden brown and then add the tomatoes. Be careful, it’ll sputter and spatter. Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste (I like it spicy) and boil for two minutes.

Then add the vodka, lower the heat and simmer until the pasta is ready. (You’ll know it’s ready because you should start tasting it when you’re not sure; you want it to be toothsome, so start tasting after 7 or 8 minutes.)

Finally, when the pasta’s just about ready, remove all the garlic cloves (it’s like a fun children’s game: fishing out garlic cloves from bubbling red sauce–ok, maybe not safe for kids), add the cream (it’ll turn the sauce an electric pink), and 2 Tbs butter or olive oil. Swirl all around (it creates a sort of emulsification, almost like a mayonnaise) and then add the pasta. Stir it all around and around on low heat (let the pasta suck up that sauce) and taste. Does it taste good? If not, add more salt, add more red pepper; this is the time to do it, not after you serve it.

When you’re happy with the seasoning, add chopped parsley and lots of grated Parmesan cheese. Stir round and round a few more times and you’re done: serve it up and suggest, to your audience, that penne alla vodka goes great with vodka straight from the bottle. Much like serving the same wine you used to cook that beef stew with the actual dinner, get a large paper bag, put the vodka in it and dress your guests like hobos as you serve them their meal. They’ll really appreciate it and you’ll use up your vodka in no time! Or just drink water and watch “The Muppet Show” on DVD, as we did. Either way, this is one way to use vodka that won’t give you a hangover.

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