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Penne Pasta with Vodka Sauce

So today I’m faced with a challenge.  We went to a new Italian restaurant for supper the other night, and it was wonderful—Salt & Pepper in the new Worthington shopping plaza on Oregon Pike, about halfway between Roseville Road and Landis Valley Road in Manheim Township.  The best Italian food we have had since we moved here, other than homemade.penne

I had delicious linguine and clams in red sauce, E. had an excellent chicken Parmesan and spaghetti, and M. had spaghetti in vodka sauce, a light and creamy red sauce.  It was an excellent meal.

The challenge, then, is to recreate the spaghetti in vodka sauce and make it even better than the restaurant’s version.  I liked it, but I wished it had had a bit more of a spicy bite. I like my red sauces to have a little punch.  Vodka sauce, on the other hand, is not particularly robust, relying on subtle but complex flavors mixed to perfection.

So what to do?

What I’ve done is replaced black pepper with white pepper, minced shallots instead of garlic, caramelized red onions instead of minced yellow ones, and a bit of sweet paprika and more red-pepper flakes than what most recipes call for. These changes add complexity to the dish.  One further adjustment is that I use Absolut Peppar as the vodka in the recipe, but that is a personal vanity.  Most any good vodka will do, but I truly like the layer of black pepper flavor it imparts.  My favorite vodka is Blair and Brown, a true potato vodka made right here in Pennsylvania, but I’d rather savor that on the rocks with a bit of tonic and lime. Perhaps together?

Try this recipe at home.  Use penne or linguine instead of spaghetti, and whole-wheat pastas will add a bit more bite to the dish.  I’m certain you’ll like it, and will serve it to guests.  It’s a true winner, sure to garner oohs and ahs from your friends and naysayers who think that vodka sauce is a bridge too far.  That’s a bridge I willingly cross.

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Ingredients:

1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) , drained, liquid reserved
1 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium red onion, minced (about 1/4 cup)

1  tablespoon light brown sugar
2 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium shallots, minced

1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika
1/4-1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
kosher salt and freshly ground WHITE pepper (much better than store-bought fine-ground)
1/3 cup vodka (try it with Absolut Peppar)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
2 whole sprigs fresh basil, plus 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Preparation:
1. Puree half of tomatoes until smooth. Dice remaining tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine pureed and diced tomatoes in liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1 2/3 cups). Add reserved liquid to equal 2 cups.
2. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. To caramelize the onion, add onion and brown sugar and cook over a low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are light golden brown and soft, about 15 minutes. Add tomato paste, and cook, stirring constantly about three minutes; add shallots, paprika, and pepper flakes and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Stir in tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove pan from heat and add vodka. Return pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until the alcohol is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower heat to medium if simmering becomes too vigorous. Remove the basil sprigs and stir in cream and cook until hot, about 1 minute.
4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water, and transfer pasta back to Dutch oven. Add sauce to pasta and toss over medium heat until pasta absorbs some of sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in the minced basil and adjust seasoning with salt. Divide among pasta bowls, garnish with chopped basil, and serve immediately.

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Hearty Mushroom-Barley Soup…Moosewood Style

The first thing I want to report in this entry is that I love—LOVE!!!—the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY.  For years I have used and featured recipes from the various Moosewood cookbooks; one of my all-time favorites is Moosewood Celebrates.  It is chock full of holiday-specific recipes for just about as many holidays that you can imagine.

And this being the coldest part of the coldest winter in my memory, I thought I’d cook my go-to meal for a winter Sunday evening. P1100054

Soup.

You all know of my affinity for soups. I love making soups—creamy soups, hearty soups, beefy soups, chickeny soups, veggie soups—there isn’t a soup I won’t try.

But this week, I’m turning back to what I know and love best:  Moosewood.

This recipe comes from the original book, The Moosewood Cookbook.  Compiled and written by Molly Katzen and published in 1977, The Moosewood Cookbook is a beautiful-to-look-at-and-read cookbook, with lovely pen-and-ink drawings instead of photographs, a typeface reminiscent of hand-written recipes, and one of the best collections of down-home vegetarian recipes that don’t scream VEGETARIAN!!!, but rather present tasty entries that a whole family can enjoy without feeling like they are eating nuts and twigs.  This is a soup I made a variation of at the gourmet store in Miami, and was one of our favorites.  Herewith, I present to you the Moosewood Restaurant version of one of our all-time faves:

THE MOOSEWOOD RESTAURANT MUSHROOM-BARLEY SOUP

Ingredients:

½ cup raw pearled barley

1 ½ cups water

5 cups vegetable stock

1 teaspoon kosher salt

4 tablespoons tamari

4 tablespoons dry sherry

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cloves garlic, minced fine

2 small-to-medium onions

1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced white mushrooms

Preparation:

Cook the barley in 1 ½ cups water for 45 minutes at very low heat. Do it right in the soup pot.  Add the stock, tamari and sherry and continue to simmer.

Saute the onions and garlic in the butter slowly, until they begin to brown lightly and start to caramelize.  When they begin to soften, add the mushrooms and salt.  When the mushrooms are tender, add to the simmering soup.  Make sure to get all the liquid that is rendered by the onions and mushrooms.

Give the soup a generous grind of fresh black pepper  and simmer 20 minutes over the lowest possible heat.  Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.  Serve with fresh, warm, crusty bread.

I can’t begin to tell you just how wonderful this soup is; it’s reminiscent of the best French onion soup you’ve had, and so much more.  It’s fragrant and hearty; it’s thick enough to stick to your ribs in winter, and at the same time tasty enough to serve to company.  Try this one.  It’s an oldie but goodie, and not much has come across my table that is much better.

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