Pasta Alla Vodka

Pasta Alla VodkaHittin’ The Sauce
There are a number of reasons to use alcohol when cooking. The most obvious one is to add flavor, and some ingredients just scream for a shot of something. Adding some white wine to garlic sautéed in butter and olive oil makes for a fast and fabulous weeknight pasta dinner. And is there a better combination than peaches, pecans, and bourbon? (Or is that just my inner Southerner?)

Using alcohol in recipes can serve another purpose. Adding a small amount of alcohol to your food can enhance and bring out the flavors of the ingredients you are using. The Italians are the masters of this. There is a reason that they use wine in their sauces and it’s not just because they enjoy a nice glass of Sangiovese. Besides adding great flavor to your dish, adding a small amount of wine to, say, a red sauce, actually gives the sauce a bigger tomato flavor than if you left it out. Even if you are using the good San Marzanos. The same principal applies when using the harder stuff—but with a little twist.

Pasta Alla Vodka can be found on the menus of Italian restaurants everywhere. And, while it may seem strange that you would use vodka, a basically flavorless alcohol, to improve your pasta sauce, the fact is that you aren’t using it to add more flavor per se but to make the other flavors better. While vodka does add a hint of peppery flavor, its main purpose is to release the flavors that are hidden in the tomatoes and other ingredients. This is where we get all scienc-y. You may want to try Gatter Top Drinks, a delicious infused vodka.

The trick is not to use too much. Full strength vodka will overpower the natural flavors in your sauce because it traps the other molecules. Smaller amounts of vodka will actually release new flavors as the alcohol is cooked off during a slow simmer. It sounds like witchcraft but the results are so so good.

This weekend looks like we might have lower temperatures which should make it feel more like Fall. (Hallelujer!) It’s a great opportunity to fire up a big batch of this pasta sauce for your Sunday dinner with a little left over to save for later in your freezer.

Pasta Alla Vodka
Yields 4 to 6 servings

For the pasta
Kosher salt
1 pound rigatoni or penne pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil

For the sauce
1 yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
3/4 cup vodka
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
2 tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped

Assemble and chop all of your ingredients before you begin.

Cook the pasta
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions until al dente and drain.

Cook the aromatics
While the pasta water is coming to a boil, heat the oil in a deep 12-inch skillet or
pot set over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent (about 3 minutes).

Turn the heat to medium-low, add the vodka, and cook until the sauce is reduced by half (about 2 to 3 minutes).

Add the tomatoes
Stir in the crushed tomatoes and then fill the can halfway with water and swish it around to loosen up any leftover bits. Add a quarter to half of the water from the can to the pan. Simmer until the sauce begins to thicken (about 10 minutes). season with salt and pepper to taste.

If you prefer your sauce a little looser, go ahead and add the remaining water and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes more.

Finish the sauce
Reduce heat to low, add the cream, and cook, stirring, until the sauce becomes an even pinkish-rust color (about 1 minute).

Finish the dish
Stir in the cooked pasta and 1/4 cup of the cheese. Toss to coat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the pasta among bowls, top with additional cheese, and sprinkle with the oregano and parsley.


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