When you’re making pizza or lasagna, your formula for tomato sauce is so basic you don’t really need a recipe: saute chopped onion and garlic in a little olive oil, add chopped or diced tomatoes, simmer until thick, la fine. Additional ingredients are unnecessary, because your sauce is destined to be layered with other exciting, flavorful foodstuffs, like vegetables, meat, herbs and cheese.
This is not the case when you plan to toss tomato sauce with plain pasta. Pairing minimalist tomato sauce with spaghetti can make a decent meal if all the ingredients are excellent. But even then it’s a rather Spartan dish without the bolstering benefits of fat and protein. Such asceticism, tolerable in summer – when one has the advantage of garden-fresh paste tomatoes – simply won’t do in winter, when your best fruit option is canned San Marzanos (or underbred, but BPA-free, boxed tomatoes).
There is a better wintertime way to make pasta and tomato sauce, and it depends on vodka – which heightens the flavor of the tomatoes – as well as cream, butter and Parmesan cheese. Pasta alla vodka is especially good to remember in early January, because it is one of the best things to eat when you are hung over, combining, as it does, many remedies for the effects of heavy drinking: butterfat, starch, spiciness and hair of the dog. (Granted, most of the alcohol in the vodka cooks off, but some of its calming effects remain.) And with all its butter, cream and cheese, there may be no better way to celebrate our nation’s narrow escape from the edge of the dairy cliff.
The origins of this brilliant amalgamation are murky; both Americans and Italians have claimed the mantle of inventor. It may have gained popularity in Italy when vodka distillers foisted the recipe on unsuspecting chefs in the 1970s, and then hit it big in the U.S. during the next decade, when Americans were snookered by its multi-culti charm. Regardless of its genesis, vodka sauce refuses to die, probably because it makes the simplest food feel opulent. It’s the Rihanna of homemade meals: not subtle, but surprisingly comforting.
I prefer a coarse sauce, but if you insist on a smooth texture, processing the sauce with an immersion blender before tossing it with the pasta will do the trick. As for the pasta, penne is the traditional cut served alla vodka, but other tubes – like the pleasingly right-angled tortiglioni – grab the sauce just as well.
To see a printable version of the recipe, click on name below: