Once, long ago, I found the following statement on someone else’s food blog: “I’m sick of The Amateur Gourmet, all he cooks is pasta.”
I usually let such cutting criticism roll off me, but this–like a piece of wet spaghetti thrown at the refrigerator–stuck. I haven’t stopped cooking pasta (not by any means: it’s my favorite thing to cook) but I’ve blogged about it less. What was the last pasta recipe I posted? Exactly: it’s been ages. (Actually, it was my Heaven & Hell Cauliflower Pasta two months ago, but let’s ignore that.)
When I saw The Barefoot Contessa invite a chef from Hamptons’ restaurant Nick & Toni’s on her show to make Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola, I said to myself: “This pasta looks delicious, but do you really want to blog about it? That nasty blog person might attack you again, might besmirch your good name even more than she besmirched your good name last time.”
Still, the pasta looked pretty outrageous—you cook onions and garlic, add tomatoes and vodka and bake in the oven for an hour and a half then blend it in a blender and finish it with cream–I figured my loyal readers would forgive me just one more pasta post. And, indeed, if you make this pasta (it tasted as outrageous as it looked on TV) you won’t only forgive me, you might want to marry me. Even that mean girl.
It’s basically a penne alla vodka but, by baking it in the oven, you concentrate all the flavors: my tomato mixture came out looking a little burnt around the edges (you’ll see the pictures in a moment) but, in fact, that just gave it character (like the charred bits you leave on a roasted red pepper). The end result was rather dazzling–creamy, garlicky, tomato-y, cheesy–and very much worth besmirching my good name. I’m Adam Roberts and I make a lot of pasta. Deal with it.
Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola
from Nick & Toni’s via The Barefoot Contessa
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 medium Spanish onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, diced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup vodka
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled plum tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound penne pasta [the website says 3/4 pound, but it’s crazy not to use the whole box]
4 tablespoons fresh oregano
3/4 cup to 1 cup heavy cream
Grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large oven-proof saute pan (I used my Le Crueset Dutch Oven) over medium heat, add the onions and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes until translucent.
3. Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for 1 minute more. Add the vodka and continue cooking until the mixture is reduced by half.
4. Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes through a sieve and crush them into the pan with your hands.
5. Add 2 teaspoons salt and a pinch of black pepper. Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and place it in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for 15 minutes.
[See how concentrated it gets? It’s really exciting!]
[Also: see the black bits around the edges? Don’t worry about those–they make it taste more rustic.]
6. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente. Drain and set aside. [I timed it so I could just lift the pasta directly into the sauce, but whatever works best for you.]
7. Place the tomato mixture in a blender and puree in batches until the sauce is a smooth consistency.
Return to the pan.
8. Reheat the sauce, add 2 tablespoons fresh oregano and enough heavy cream to make the sauce a creamy consistency.
9. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and simmer for 10 minutes.
Toss the pasta into the sauce and cook for 2 minutes more.
10. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan. Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan and a sprinkle of fresh oregano on each plate.