Add vodka and cream for a better tomato sauce

SlateJanuary 22, 2013 


Making pasta and tomato sauce in the winter depends on vodka. Illustrates HOWTO-TOMATO (category d), by L.V. Anderson (c) 2013, Slate. Moved Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Slate photo by L.V. Anderson.)


  • Penne Alla Vodka 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 large onion, chopped 6 garlic cloves, chopped Salt and black pepper 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper 1 (26-ounce box or 28-ounce) can chopped tomatoes 1 pound penne or other tubular cut pasta 1/4 cup vodka 1/2 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon butter 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish BRING a large pot of water to a boil. PUT olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add crushed red pepper and tomatoes, adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. SALT water generously when it comes to a boil and add the pasta. ADD vodka to the tomato mixture, and continue cooking until thick and saucy, another 10 to 15 minutes. Stir the cream and butter into the tomato sauce, and turn off the heat. RESERVE a cup of the pasta cooking water when the pasta in al dente – usually after 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the package instructions – and then drain the pasta. Toss pasta with sauce, adding the reserved cooking liquid as needed to thin out the sauce. Add Parmesan, toss again, and serve hot, garnished with more Parmesan. Yield: 6 servings

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:

Penne alla Vodka

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