Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pasta with Vodka Cream Sauce

I like to cook with alcohol. There. I’ve said it.
This fact embarrasses me a little. Not the cooking with it aspect, per se. More, it is the act of having a fifth of vodka in my freezer that I feel needs to be explained. I actually hide it, but it’s there, back behind a stack of frozen vegetables and buried underneath a couple other things. And I don’t actually go to the liquor store to buy it myself. I send The Carnivore. I have only been to a liquor store once since The Big Boy was born, and I was positively mortified to walk in with him on my hip, but I desperately needed some coffee liqueur for the tiramisu that I was craving. I loudly announced to the clerk that I needed the liqueur for a dessert, and I’m sure he thought that the lady doth protest too much. When I walked out, and realized I had chosen to go to the store on quite possibly the busiest street in town, and I saw my brother-in-law drive by, and there I was with an 18-month old on my hip and a brown paper bag in my hand, I swore I would not do that again. Not with a kid. No way. I live in The Deep South. People will talk.
But since I’m not at all willing to stop cooking with alcohol, I send The Carnivore in my stead. It’s all a matter of priorities. Well, that and I don’t care what people say about him. Matter of fact, I need some rum for an ice cream recipe that I found on David Lebovitz’ website months ago, so I may need to send him there today.
I use cooking wine in a number of recipes, but those are the "wines" people don’t actually drink, the ones sold in small bottles next to the vinegars and oils on the pasta aisle in the store. And while they add depth to soup recipes and they’re necessary in deglazing when making pan sauces, these cheap little bottles are nothing to write home about (and certainly nothing to hide from the Sunday School teacher, you know?).
A few years ago though, I read an article about using vodka in tomato sauces and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. As odd as the concept seemed to me and my neophyte cooking ways, the description the writer gave of the slow burn from the vodka and the velvety smoothness of some added cream, well, it pushed all my buttons. So I cut out the recipe and quietly asked The Carnivore to pick up a very small bottle of vodka on his way home from work. He was dubious, especially when he heard I planned to use it in a pasta recipe, but he came home that day with a brown paper bag in his hand and I thanked my lucky stars that my mother didn’t just happen to drop by that afternoon.
I was a little nervous about the recipe. Neither of us had partaken of a drop to drink in a few years at that point, but since I was neither pregnant nor breastfeeding at the moment, I figured we didn’t have much to lose here. So I followed the recipe to the letter, and withheld a few unsullied penne noodles for our then-Odd-Toddler (because I was pretty sure he didn’t need any vodka sauce in his diet) and we sat down to eat. I hesitantly brought a forkful of heavily sauced pasta to my mouth and chewed thoughtfully. The sauce had a rich and luxuriously soft mouthfeel. The taste was, at first, not unlike any other well-prepared tomato and cream sauce, but then, as I swallowed, I felt that slow burn that the author had written about in the article that started this whole experiment.
We loved it. What we didn’t expect, however, was that after we had each finished about half of our dinner, we started to, um, feel the vodka, if you know what I mean. This was the first time I had cooked with real alcohol, you see, and I didn’t realize that this recipe I was using was lacking in technique. As I later realized, the point is to let the alcohol cook off so that the taste remains (but the tipsy-factor does not). This particular recipe had added the vodka towards the end of the cooking so we were getting all the alcohol with our dinner.
I pushed my plate away, out of fear, before I had finished. The Carnivore finished his, but muttered, “I’m still hungry, but I’m afraid I’ll get drunk if I eat any more.” We made some popcorn, tossed the rest of the pasta onto the compost heap, and pushed the bottle of vodka to the very back of the bottom shelf of the freezer.
Then, oh, months later, I saw an article in Cook’s Illustrated on vodka sauce and I happily dug around in the freezer until I got my hands on that bottle again. Because, of course, I really didn’t want to waste the rest of that bottle, but obviously I wasn’t spending a lot of time making martinis. And, let’s face it, I wanted to taste a proper vodka sauce.
The writer wrote of trying to develop a less boozy sauce which was exactly what we were after, and happily, their recipe worked. Of course it did though, right? It was Cook’s Illustrated after all. But, as with most Cook’s recipes, it was long on ingredients and technique, and the whole thing kind of stressed me out. I made it a time or two, and while we were pleased with the results, I wasn’t head-over-heels for it and besides, I lost the issue that the recipe came in and their website isn’t big on sharing. Unless you pay for it. Which I didn’t want to do.
So we went without for a time, even though we now had a large bottle of vodka languishing in the nether regions of our freezer and I kept my eyes open for other uses (ignoring the temptation to make jello shots when the kid was driving me batty).
Finally I came upon the right recipe in the September 2007 issue of Cooking Light magazine. It is a simple vodka sauce that can be made with ingredients I keep on hand at all times (perfect for when things have gone awry and I can’t stick to the menu for which I have shopped) and yet it is easy to embellish upon if I feel so inclined and have the time to leisurely go about dinner prep. Oh, and it won’t get me tipsy.


PASTA WITH VODKA CREAM SAUCE (adapted from Cooking Light, yields about 4 cups)
  • 1/2 pound penne pasta
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1 tsp salt, divided
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1/4 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 3 Tbs thinly sliced fresh basil
  1. Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and keep warm.
  2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add onion to pan; saute for 2 or 3 minutes, until tender.
  4. Add 1/4 tsp salt, pepper, and garlic. Saute for 1 minute.
  5. Add vodka and bring to a boil.
  6. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid is reduced by half (this can take anywhere from 4 minutes to 10 minutes, and it isn't crucial that you're terribly exact about it).
  7. Stir in 1/2 tsp salt, broth, and tomatoes. Bring to a boil.
  8. Reduce heat, and simmer for about 8 minutes.
  9. Puree the sauce using an immersion blender in the skillet, or by pouring everything into a blender and removing the center piece to allow steam to escape.
  10. Pour sauce back into skillet and stir in cream.
  11. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until cream is incorporated.
  12. Remove from heat. Stir together with pasta, remaining 1/4 tsp of salt, and basil.

When I'm feeling decadent, I stir in a Tbs of cream cheese to the sauce at the end. Or, if I'm feeling feisty, I'll use more crushed red pepper than the recipe calls for. The recipe feeds four when served with fresh, crusty bread and a simple green salad. This week I served it with another batch of the focaccia bread that I wrote about recently - this batch was made with basil and Pecorino-Romano cheese in place of the oregano and Romano in the original recipe.


Shari said...

I tried the bread last week and it was delicious. I told my husband I would make it for him when he comes home next week. I've never tried cooking with alcohol before but we love pasta and I'm always looking for something new to try. Should I practice in advance or is it pretty much fool proof?

Sarah Beam said...

Shari - its so good to hear someone actually tries all these recipes. I have another bread recipe to share too (one that actually involves kneading). As for the pasta recipe, this one is pretty much foolproof. It uses such a small amount of vodka, and the time spent reducing the liquid is where the alcohol actually cooks off. As long as you make sure you reduce it for long enough (until the liquid is reduced by about half), you should have no worries.

yolie said...

This post had me laughing out loud. The thought of you two tipsy from pasta with Big Boy wobbling around is hilarious. Love you.

Sarah Beam said...

Yolie, I forgot all about what a social worker might think when I wrote that. Whoops...

jj said...

A little alcohol can add wonderful tastes to food; it's not just for drinking! Lol

This recipe sounds great.

Melissa said...

I made the pasta last night, it was delish!

Sarah Beam said...

Yay - I'm so glad you liked it, Melissa.

Jennifer said...

This sounds wonderful. I have made another recipe of it before but it was done wrong and we too got a little woozy shall we say. I will have to try this one this weekend. Thanks for sharing. BTW the pictures of the kiddos are priceless