You’re supposed to eat a good meal before you drink.
I was new to drinking my freshman year of college but I at least knew that. So with that nugget of knowledge and a water bottle of junky tequila that I got from someone in my dorm, I made the quick trip to the University of Delaware to see my friend Cara for a pre-spring break weekend.
After a detour to health services to see if Cara had tuberculosis, she didn’t, we headed to Main Street for dinner. Since we were going to spend the rest of the night party-hopping from frat to frat, ugh we thought we were so cool, I ordered pasta for dinner as a base for all of the shitty beer I was going to consume. Even bad penne a la vodka is good so dinner was awesome. We then rushed back to Cara’s dorm so she and her roommate could put on makeup for an hour and I brought out my disgusting water bottle of tequila. We lined up celebratory shots, probably took a million pictures for Facebook, and then bottoms up. Ugh, burns so bad. The next thing I remember is looking into the tiny trashcan Cara kept next to her desk and it quickly filling up with penne a la vodka. Tequila shots are not for me.
I don’t know if it was the cheap liquor, the heavy meal or the stomach bug that I then had for the next three days that did me in. But one moment of dorm room puking has not kept me away from creamy vodka sauce, and it shouldn’t deter you either.
When I evolved past water bottle booze I asked my over 21 boyfriend to bring me a bottle of Absolut so I could make Rachael Ray’s You Won’t Be Single for Long Vodka Cream Pasta. Great recipe and I used it for a while but good to try new things. I came about the recipe I make now through another Food Network queen. All hail Ina Garten.
I love when chefs or other food people come on her show to cook with her because Ina then acts like she has never boiled water before. I also love that she tries to get the most flavor out of foods while doing the least amount of work, amen. So when Joseph Realmuto rolled up to her Hamptons estate with a vodka sauce that roasts in the oven, I knew Ina and I were going to be converts.
The beauty of this penne a la vodka recipe is that there is minimal babysitting. After slicing a few onions and smashing a couple of cloves of garlic they get sauteed on the stove. But then all of the work is done by the oven. Vodka and cans of whole tomatoes join the onions and garlic and they all go for a spin in the oven for a long roast. An hour and a half of oven roasting time doesn’t scream easy weeknight meal but it’s time you’re not in the kitchen. Once the sauce finishes roasting everything comes together in minutes, less than the time it takes for the penne to cook.
Since I’m not Italian and I don’t eat my pasta in dainty portions followed by a sensible entree, I add sauteed zucchini cut to the same size of the penne quills to soak up the sauce and make for a more well-rounded meal.
Bonus of this recipe: You end up with a few cups of tomato juice and leftover vodka from the sauce making process. So if you make this on a Friday night then you’re halfway to Saturday morning Bloody Mary’s when you get up the next day.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 cups onions, sliced
- 4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1/2 tbs kosher salt
- 1 tbs Italian seasoning
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- generous pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 cup vodka
- 2 28oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- 2 medium zucchini, chopped
- 1 pound of penne pasta
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Drain the tomatoes, you can set aside the tomato juice for something else. It's not needed for this recipe.
- Heat oil in a large oven proof pan over medium heat.
- Slice onions and smash garlic, then add to the warm oil. Let the onions and garlic cook for 5-7 minutes stirring frequently. You want them to soften, but not brown.
- Add salt, Italian seasoning, black pepper, and red pepper flakes and cook for another minute.
- Add the vodka and try not to breathe in too deep. If you take too big of a whiff over the pan, the reducing vodka will clear out your sinuses real quick.
- Reduce the vodka by half.
- Add the tomatoes to the pan and stir. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and roast in the oven for 90 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the oven and let the sauce cool for 15 minutes. During this time set a pot of water over high heat to boil for your pasta. Also, chop your zucchini, you want them to be a size similar to your penne. Heat a little oil in a small saute pan and saute your vegetables. And once your water is boiling then drop your penne in and cook till al dente.
- Once the sauce has cooled a little bit you want to get it smooth. I use a stick blender to buzz the sauce right in the pot. You can also use a food processor or blender but be careful because the sauce will still be hot. Process until the tomato sauce is completely smooth.
- Over low heat stir in the cream and cheese, and mix until the sauce is pink and the cheese is melted.
- Adjust seasoning and then toss with zucchini and pasta.
- Serve with extra cheese, if desired.