Cooking With Booze: Penne alla Vodka

Dan Hernandez delivers a delicious recipe for the best pasta ever. 

I make the world’s best penne alla vodka. The best. In the whole world. My penne alla vodka reveals the secret mysteries of the universe. And today I’ll share my recipe like some wise and ancient kung-fu master on a snow-covered mountain and you won’t even have to brave the elements or like a wrestle a dragon or anything.

I’m magnanimous like that.

Big, filling pasta dishes like this are both comfort food and very social foods. Dishes like this, dishes that require some time and prep (even if they are comparatively simple to make, just time-consuming), are dishes that are less about eating and more about having meals. The eating is good too, though.

These big meals are great for filling bellies, getting people fat and happy, a little drunk off good food and good wine. So let’s get some friends together, because I don’t know how to make this for less than half a dozen people. And because food tastes better when we share it anyway.

A Diatribe on Vodka.

Let’s talk about vodka for a second first, without which this would just be a recipe for how to make penne alla. I keep a bottle on my bar in part because sometimes I’m viciously hungover and need the soothing balm of a scratch-made Bloody Mary (all of the work involved helps, too) and in part because sometimes I want to fix myself that tall glass of mediocrity that is the world’s best named drink, the Harvey Wallbanger. Primarily, though, I keep a bottle on hand for cooking.

Here’s a trade secret. Vodka is bullshit. If you’re paying $15 for half a gallon of booze in a plastic jug, that’s all the same rocket fuel made from beets and rice and distilled in Indiana just dressed up with a different label on each bottle. If you’re paying more than $30 for a heavy bottle of frosted glass (or a “crystal” skull or gold-plated symbol of over-compensation or like some ridiculous tower of jagged ice or whatever), you’re paying for the name and the package.

Now. There are definitely vodka-loving people who will fight me tooth and nail over this next bit. And that’s fine. Good on you, vodka nerds. But here’s the thing. The way we drink vodka and the way we critically evaluate the qualitative properties of vodka are fundamentally opposed to each other. Try this*. Pour three top-shelf vodkas, room temperature, into three glasses and just take a whiff of each. They all smell different, with different grains and fruit popping out. They’ll taste and even feel different, too. Some will be dusty and dry and some will have an almost slick, mouth-filling texture. But serve those three vodkas well chilled (you know, the way we actually enjoy vodka) and those differences become noticeably muted to the point of disappearing entirely.

When alcoholic beverages are served too cold, their flavors gradually fade until they disappear. There’s a reason Coors Light makes such a big deal about their cans and bottles staying colder for longer, and Jagermeister has that ridiculous machine that pours over-priced ice-cold shots** directly into the mouths of dumbass college students.

Now take those same chilled vodkas and pour them over ice and tonic, and squeeze a lime in there for good measure. Tell me you can tell the difference between each drink, that I may decry you for a liar or praise you as a savant.

There’s a reason, frankly, that we don’t cook with gin. Vodka is flavorless and odorless. That is the entire actual point.

1963 Julie Newmar is my best girl.

When we cook with vodka, we are specifically cooking with alcohol. And, to be precise, we are cooking with a very small amount of alcohol. A little bit of booze (1-2% ABV, ideally) lends a little weight, a little sweetness, and most importantly it enhances aromatics and flavors of the dish. In our penne alla vodka, the titular alla vodka is there to make all of the other disparate flavors we’re working with hold hands and play nice.

What Are We Drinking?

Right, so the vodka is for cooking and not for drinking (it’s also for drinking). But we want something to sit next to our penne alla vodka that will make it taste better and make us feel good.

I love wine. This has been proven. It’s up there next to fast cars, Fantastic Four comics, and movies where one guy has to revenge-kick another guy to death. Higher, even, considering I’ve devoted my life and career to it (though if I could devote my life and career to watching old Shaw Brothers movies I would do it in a heartbeat). I drink wine every day, and I especially drink wine with every meal. There’s a cutesy café down the street from me that has a sign on the wall that reads “A Meal Without Wine Is Called Breakfast” and all I can think of every time I see it is wait, no. Mimosas are for breakfast.

So. Wine! Penne alla vodka is a surprisingly complex dish in terms of its flavor profile. Everything here is in balance, and so nothing should stand out, but there are some ingredients here that are difficult to pair. There’s heavy cream and red pepper and tomato and despite the fact that tomato forms a cornerstone of Italian cooking, and Italy is one of the cornerstones of the wine world, tomato is a surprisingly difficult ingredient to pair wine with. It’s those two extremes of sweetness and acidity that can make tomatoes so difficult.

Too much sweetness makes wine taste bitter, and too much acidity also makes wine taste bitter. It’s a slippery slope we’re walking, friends, here on Tomato Mountain***.

Sangiovese, the signature grape of Tuscany, is a perfect choice here. Contrary to the opinion of some otherwise brilliant cannibalistic serial killing psychiatrists, a nice Chianti does not actually pair all that well with liver and fava beans. But it’s a great match for our rich and flavorful penne alla vodka.

I’m serving the 2010 Le Potazzine Toscana (13% booze, about $14, purchased) tonight, which is a wine I really like. It is classic Sangiovese, with lots of ripe red cherry flavor without being juicy, and a dusty and earthy texture. The Potazzine vineyards (just a couple of acres, small plots of land under vine is something I like to see in Tuscany) are in Brunello di Montalcino, so the wines tend to be less rustic and sharply flavored than those from Chianti.

A good Chianti will work wonders here as well, for that matter, and there are plenty of good ones that are readily available. Pick one that looks good and have at.

What’s Cooking, Good Looking.

So now that we’ve poured a healthy glass of wine and prepped our workspace (read: cleared off the counter), we can get cooking.

You will need:

The better part of an afternoon (like four hours or so)
¼ cup of olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 large carrots (or a bunch of tiny carrots I guess), peeled and chopped
Crushed chili pepper flakes
1 cup of vodka (I keep Sobieski on hand, it’s good and it’s cheap, but your favorite will do just fine****)
2 28-oz cans of peeled plum tomatoes
1 cup of heavy cream
A brick of parmesan cheese
1 pound of penne pasta
Something to listen to while you work, like maybe a movie podcast hosted by a couple of very funny, clever and insightful fellas.
Also a kitchen with an oven and a stove and like some pots and pans and shit. And some dishes and eating utensils I guess?
Oh definitely a food processor, though.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Heat the olive oil in a big ovenproof pan over medium heat and add the onion, garlic, celery and carrot. Cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the onion is clearish but not brownish. Stir in ½ teaspoon of crushed chili pepper flakes and 1½ teaspoons of oregano. Cook for another minute or so. Stir in 1 cup of vodka and leave it alone to cook until it’s reduced by about half.

While the vodka-vegetable goop is doing its thing, drain the tomatoes and then crush them into the pan with your bare hands like you are a giant crushing the soft flesh of your enemies. Make Godzilla noises while you do so (this step is important, it brings out the subtle secondary flavors of the carrot that would otherwise remain dulled. Do not skip the Godzilla noise-making step). Add two teaspoons of salt and a pinch of pepper. Cover the pan and put it in the oven for about 90 minutes.

Do some cleaning.

Remove the pan and uncover it to let it cool. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil and cook the penne al dente. While it’s cooking, take the opportunity to grate half a cup of Parmesan cheese. I know half a cup doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but grating a brick of Parmesan cheese is the most work-intensive part of this whole endeavour, and probably in your whole day, so don’t wait until the last minute. Also, don’t use that pre-grated shit in the green plastic jar. Good brick Parmesan is crazy cheap and tastes much, much better.

Spoon your tomato-mixture-thing in small batches into the food-processor and puree until the sauce is smooth. Put the sauce back in the pan. Reheat the sauce over low heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of oregano and 1 cup of heavy cream. Add salt and pepper to taste, then simmer for about 10 minutes. Toss the pasta in with the sauce and cook for a couple more minutes, then stir in the Parmesan.
Serve with an additional sprinkle of Parmesan, oregano, pepper and a drop of olive oil on each plate to a relatively large crowd of hungry, thirsty people.


*Darren at Il Gallo Giallo out in New Platz, New York taught me this one and it blew my fucking mind. Also, New Yorkers, take a day trip out there. The food is amazing and the wine list is top notch. Also New Platz is really pretty in the spring.

**The reason is these are bad things that taste bad.

***That’s…guys. Tomato Mountain is not a real thing.

****Except flavored vodka. Flavored vodka is for students and PUAs trying to run game on students.