I’ve had a few misfires on the way to reliable homemade penne alla vodka. As a newlywed long ago, I cooked a triple batch for my husband’s big Sicilian family. The sauce was smooth and silky; the prosciutto was delicate; and the basil was fresh. People raved. But then the clock struck midnight, I guess, and I could never recreate it after that. I kept using the same recipe, but my cream curdled every time. I experimented with heat, acidity, and fat content, but nothing helped. I retired that recipe, but I kept having the same problem with others.
My troubles disappeared when I tried the version I discovered on Smitten Kitchen (taken from Rachael Ray). It called for chicken stock, which seemed somehow inauthentic. But I was desperate for a good tomato cream sauce, so I tried it. Years later, I’ve made this sauce more times than I can count because it works every time. My theory is that a butter-and-onion sauté combines with the stock to cut the tomatoes’ acidity (a common curdling culprit).
The silky sauce that won over my in-laws is, sadly, lost to history. This version calls for crushed tomatoes and a substantial proportion of onion, so its texture is more, um, rustic (chunky). But the flavors are robust and satisfying, and it gave us some comfort last week as we waited out the remnants of a monster hurricane emptying itself out over the Eastern seaboard. The original recipe is here, but I have some tweaks and clarifications that merit fresh instructions. Bonus: My standard preparation for weeknight green beans is also below.
Penne alla vodka
Boil a big pot of water and add a pound of dry penne pasta; cook it until al dente (just barely done) according to the package instructions and drain it in a colander. Meantime, cook half a pound of your favorite bacon until it’s quite crispy, a bit stiffer than you’d probably eat it for breakfast. (Substitute pancetta if you prefer.)
Cut half a sweet onion into a small dice. Melt a tablespoon of butter with a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, then add the onion. Sauté until it starts to brown, about five minutes. Mince two garlic cloves and sauté with the onion for about a minute.
Now for the booze. You’ll need a total of one cup. You can stick with only vodka, but I recommend 3/4 cup of vodka and 1/4 cup of cognac for more complexity. Pour the liquor in a slow stream around the outside of the pan and cook it down by about half, about three minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Add 1 cup of chicken stock and a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, with their juice. Muir Glen’s Fire-Roasted variety is good. Season with salt and pepper to taste; I also like to add 1/2 a teaspoon of crushed red pepper. On medium heat, cook the sauce down for about eight to ten minutes. Use your splatter screen, or don’t say I didn’t warn you. Give it a deep stir every couple of minutes to make sure nothing starts to stick to the bottom of the pan.
While the sauce is reducing, it’s a good time to chop up the mix-ins. I like to chop the crispy bacon with a knife. You’ll get some bacon “crumbs” that way, suffusing a savory flavor throughout the sauce rather than leaving it concentrated in the bigger bacon pieces. In addition to the bacon, chop about 20 basil leaves (chiffonade works nicely with penne) and about 2 tablespoons of fresh Italian parsley.
When the tomato mixture has cooked down, turn off the heat and drizzle in 1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream. Stir it into the sauce gently until just combined. Turn the heat back on and let the sauce bubble for just a minute; then it’s done.
Combine the cooked penne, bacon, and sauce in a large serving bowl (or in your pot if you’re serving from the stove). Stir to combine thoroughly, then let it sit for a minute. Stir in the herbs at this point; or, if you’re feeding people skeptical of greenery, leave them to the side as a self-serve garnish along with shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Garlic Green Beans
I like haricots verts, the thinner French green beans that don’t need their ends removed. I steam about one pound in the microwave for four minutes, then drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil in a serving bowl until just coated. With a mortar and pestle, I make a paste with two cloves of garlic and about a teaspoon of coarse sea salt; I mix the paste into the green beans. Last but not least, I grate the zest from one lemon into the green beans and toss well.
The zest gives a suggestion of sweetness – a memory, sort of – without the acidity of the lemon juice (one of my kids is sensitive to sourness). When we want more than a suggestion, I mix in a slight drizzle of honey before adding the zest.