If you ever need evidence that I do not shy away from embarrassing myself here, look no further than one of the earliest posts on this site, where I tell the story of inviting a guy I’d recently begun dating over for dinner. I’d watched Rachael Ray’s 30-Minute Meals that morning, equally hungered by her making one of my favorite pastas, penne alla vodka, and horrified by the fact that she renamed it the “You Won’t Be Single For Long Vodka Cream Pasta.” I decided to make it, you know, tongue-in-cheek, sarcastically, sure Deb, except it “worked” — we are 15 years married (although everyone agrees the last year counts as two) which works out to about 17 years of repeating this awkwardness as part of our “how it started in the kitchen” story.
But when I look back at that recipe, do you know — after the name — what makes me cringe the most? Rachael Ray told me to put chicken broth in my vodka sauce! I shudder for me, and you. In the years since, she’s moved forward and so have I. I now know that well-seasoned pasta water is the only “broth” your sauce needs. I’ve made a few other changes to the way I make, too:
- More garlic and more heat
- Less vodka, and I add it earlier and cook it off. Kids make you so square, huh?
- Tomato paste, one of my favorites, instead of chopped tomato for a smoother, quicker sauce.
- A level of cream adjusted to my mood that day, orange or pink.
- Rigatoni > penne because I prefer wide, flat, double-decker bites of pasta and it feels good to get this truth out.
This new version is as delicious as ever, but faster, more flavorful, and now, instead of early-date awkwardness, it’s more like this.
6 months ago: Collard Greens with Cornmeal Dumplings
1 year ago: Perfect Vegetable Lasagna
2 year ago: Bodega-Style Egg and Cheese Sandwich and Chocolate Puddle Cakes
3 years ago: Slow-Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Korean-Braised Short Ribs
4 years ago: Small-Batch Tiramisu
5 years ago: Miso Black Sesame Caramel Corn and Hot and Sour Soup
6 years ago: Oven-Braised Beef with Tomatoes and Garlic and Pecan Sticky Buns
7 years ago: Chocolate Hazelnut Linzer Hearts and Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake
8 years ago: Italian Stuffed Cabbage
9 years ago: Lasagna Bolognese
10 years ago: Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake
11 years ago: Best Cocoa Brownies and Chana Masala
12 years ago: Chocolate Whiskey and Beer Cupcakes and Crispy Black Bean Tacos with Feta and Slaw
13 years ago: Seven-Yolk Pasta Dough and Best Chocolate Pudding
14 years ago: For Beaming, Bewitching Breads
Rigatoni alla Vodka
- 1 pound dried rigatoni
- Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 large or 2 small shallots, minced
- Red pepper flakes, to taste
- 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup vodka
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream, to taste
- A few basil leaves, chopped, to finish
- Grated parmesan or pecorino cheese, to serve
Cook pasta in well-salted water to al dente, about 1 minute shy of doneness. Scoop out 1 1/2 cups of pasta water and set aside. Drain pasta.
In your empty pasta pot, heat olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add shallots, garlic, and pepper flakes (1/2 teaspoon for a moderate kick), and cook until shallots are softened but not brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add vodka and cook, stirring up anything stuck, until vodka disappears. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the tomato paste is one shade darker. Add 1 cup of the reserved pasta water, scraping up any stuck tomato paste, stirring until the mixture becomes a sauce. Season it now — I add just about 2 teaspoons kosher salt and many grinds of black pepper — simmer for 2 minutes. Add cream; I begin with 1/2 cup and then add more, a splash at a time, until I get the shade of orange/pink that I am craving.
Add drained pasta to sauce and toss to coat and adding last 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water, a splash at a time, as needed to loosen the sauce. Cook pasta and sauce together for 1 minute.
Sprinkle with basil and scoop into bowls, garnishing each with parmesan or pecorino and extra red pepper flakes, to taste. Eat immediately.
A few questions, answered:
- What does the vodka do? Depending on who you ask, the vodka serves to improve the consistency of the sauce and/or heightens the flavor and fragrance, but others argue it does nothing and was just the result of aggressive marketing on the part of vodka importers. My take: It’s mostly Tradition, but you can also make it show up more by not cooking it off.
- Can I skip the vodka? Yes.
- Do I need to cook the vodka off? Not at all. Vodka is traditionally added later in the dish, so the flavor stays. I’ve got little kids, so I cook it off earlier. You can skip cooking it off or add it after the tomato paste if you’d like it to be more present.