Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Penne with vodka sauce is one of those dishes I've always been intrigued by. Everyone raves about it, plus cooking with booze always seems like fun. When someone from my lab gifted me with 3 lbs of tomatoes from her garden, and instructed me that they would be best when cooked, I knew I wanted to make this dish. I didn't really think about the fact that I don't normally like tomato sauces. I somehow knew that this would transcend normal tomato sauce.

Almost every recipe I've seen for vodka sauce has started with canned tomatoes, and I would be using fresh. Because of this, I ended up combining a few recipes, and just making everything work with what I had. I'm really pleased with how it all turned out, and would definitely make this again. I'd be curious to see if the flavor profile changes when using canned tomatoes instead of fresh. I would think that using fresh tomatoes would make it taste more, well, fresh. Although they're cooked for so long, that it's possible you end up losing any extra freshness.

Recipe: Penne with Vodka Sauce
Adapted from Serious Eats
Yield: 3-4 servings

2 tbsp butter
1/2 small onion, finely diced/minced
1/2 tsp salt
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
1/4 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp dried basil
1 tbsp tomato paste
28 oz can crushed tomatoes, or 2 lbs plum tomatoes, peeled, cored and crushed (see below for instructions)
1/3 cup vodka
1 lb penne pasta
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup milk or cream
4 oz goat cheese
parmesan cheese for serving (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. This will take a while, so let's get started on the sauce.

2. In a large sauce pan, heat butter over medium heat. Add onion and 1/2 tsp salt, and cook until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, red pepper, black pepper, basil, and tomato paste, and stir well. Cook for another minute, being careful to avoid scorching. Add crushed tomatoes and vodka, and bring back to a hearty simmer. Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently. This will cook off (most of) the alcohol, and reduce the sauce.

3. Once your pasta water is boiling, add the pasta, and give it a few stirs to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. Cook until the pasta is not quite al dente. Drain the pasta, but don't forget to save some pasta water. I like using a scoop to pull out the pasta, so I don't forget, and pour all of the pasta down the drain. Let the pasta hang out in a separate bowl until the sauce is done.

4. Once the sauce has reduced and the alcohol has cooked off, you have a few options. If you like a chunky sauce, then leave it as is. If you want a completely smooth sauce, then (CAREFULLY) put it in the blender. I like it somewhere in the middle, so it isn't really chunky, but still has some texture. To achieve this, I use my immersion blender (also called a stick blender). I can focus on any large chunks, and try to smooth out the sauce, while still retaining some texture. Regardless of what you do, just make sure to be careful! The sauce is hot, and splatters will definitely hurt. Once you have your desired texture, give it a taste, and add any salt and pepper as necessary.

5. Put the sauce pan back over medium heat, and add the milk and goat cheese. Cook 1-2 minutes, until heated through, and goat cheese has melted. Stir in the pasta, and bring back to a hearty simmer. Cook for 3-5 minutes, until your pasta has finished cooking, and the sauce has thickened. Add pasta water to thin out the sauce as necessary. Serve immediately, with a generous sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese (optional, but not really).

This sauce can be scaled up or down, as necessary. If you want to make just a single portion, I would recommend making the full amount of sauce through step 4, and making just enough pasta for one serving, about 3 oz. Then, put the drained pasta in a smaller pan with some of the sauce, and add 1 tbsp milk and 1 oz goat cheese, and proceed as instructed. You can store the rest of the sauce (without any milk/cheese) in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for several months.

Using fresh tomatoes:
Instructions from The Yummy Life
Start with 2 lbs of fresh tomatoes - plum tomatoes work really well. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Using a sharp knife, score an "x" on the end opposite the core. Add tomatoes to boiling water, putting only a few in at a time. Boil for 30-60 seconds, then remove and put in a bowl of ice water. Continue working in batches until all tomatoes have been boiled. Don't leave the tomatoes in the ice water for too long, or they might start to freeze! Once they are cool enough to handle, remove them from the water, and the skin should pull off pretty easily. Put the peeled tomatoes in a big bowl, and (this part is fun), crush with your hands. For best results, crush one tomato at a time - this way you can make sure you pull out any bad parts, and the core. You should get about 3 - 3 1/2 cups of crushed tomatoes, and use all of that for the recipe.

My tomatoes, crushed by hand (it felt pretty nice)

The diced onion on the right, and some rough chopped garlic on the left. It will be minced more finely before I add it in

The onion cooking in butter, not quite ready

The onion has browned more now, and the garlic, tomato paste, and seasoning has been added in

The tomatoes have been added in, as well as the vodka

This is what I call a "hearty simmer" - with lots of bubbling

My individual serving of pasta - 3 oz of veggie penne

The finished sauce, pulled off to the side so I can use my immersion blender

Pasta and a generous helping of sauce, in a small sauce pan

Back up to a hearty simmer, with the milk and goat cheese added

The sauce is exactly where I want it - thick and creamy, and the pasta has cooked perfectly

Bowl of deliciousness

I wouldn't be me if I didn't add a bunch of cheese on top!