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Recipe and Pairing by: Eric Guido

I’ve posted quite a few recipes that could take from an hour to six hours of preparation and usually with a decent hit to the wallet. So I got to thinking about the average person or aspiring cook in this busy day and age. I know that entertaining can be laborious and often expensive, but what if you could make a pasta plate that could stand tall next to anything a restaurant has to offer and do it in under a half hour from start to finish? Then, what if I told you it could cost less than $30 to feed a party of four? Seems too good to be true? Well it’s not; it’s Penne alla Vodka.

Penne alla Vodka is not a traditional Italian preparation and searching for its roots leads to a wealth of disinformation and theories. What is fact is that ages ago it was realized that alcohol can help to bring out flavors in tomatoes that cannot otherwise be obtained through any other preparation (known as alcohol soluble). This is often why a red sauce will include wine in its list of ingredients. Not only does it help to bring out these flavors but it also imparts its own qualities to the sauce.

penne-12Penne alla Vodka is a balancing act of flavors. The sweet sautéed garlic and onions play against the woodsy and smoky pancetta. The crushed red pepper provides a heat that is kept in check by the addition of heavy cream, which also rounds out any rough edges left behind by the vodka. The tomatoes take center stage providing a deep, fresh, succulent tomato flavor that, I find, can only be achieved in this dish. Lastly, the basil grounds you in reality with an earthy, vegetal mintiness, which brings it all together… God I love Penne alla Vodka!

As for the wine, pairing with this dish can be tricky. It’s a rich, cream based, tomato sauce so you’d think that any high acid red would do the trick. However, there’s a spiciness to this dish that would react badly to anything high in alcohol. This led me to think of Sangiovese, but in this case I wouldn’t go for something mature, as the tannins in a young will interact well with the cream sauce.  Lastly, in keeping with the value oriented theme of this recipe, let’s keep our pairing under $40.  This led me to think of one of my favorite under-the-radar producers in Tuscany, Le Boncie, and the wine they’re famous for Le Trame. (read more)

This is truly fine dinning in your home without the price tag or the hassle. Enjoy!

Penne alla Vodka

Serves 4 – 5 guests

penne-3A note on the ingredients: Try to find San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. Believe it or not there are domestic brands that try to trick you with tomatoes of inferior quality and a completely different taste. Also, using penne “rigate” (instead of regular penne) is important because the texture holds the sauce to the penne. Lastly, an entire bottle of vodka is not included in the cost of the recipe and since it is only a ¼ cup, use the good stuff if you’ve got it. Remember, your food is primarily the sum of your ingredients.

  • 28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes
  • 5 cloves minced garlic
  • ½ cup yellow onion cut into fine dice
  • ½ cup pancetta small dice
  • ¼ cup vodka
  • ¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 – 2 tbls olive oil
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (depending on your preference for spice)
  • 1 pound penne rigate
  • 8 fresh basil leaves cut chiffonade (This should not be done until the end of the cooking process.)
  • salt and pepper

While bringing a pot of salted water to a boil, measure out and prepare your ingredients.

penne-7Pour the tomatoes into a bowl and, with your hands, break up the tomatoes into small pieces. Remove any skins if they were left on the tomatoes.

In a large saucepan, pour in olive oil and set to medium flame. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the pancetta and cook until browned (about 4 minutes). Remove the pancetta from the pan and reserve as a garnish for later.

meatballs-2Add the onions and garlic to the pan and season well with salt. It is also at this time that you should add the pasta to the boiling water and set the timer for 1 minute short of the recommended cooking time. Cook the onion and garlic mixture until translucent (about 2 minutes).

Raise the heat to medium high, and add the red pepper flakes to the pan and stir. Pull the pan from the stove (away from the flame.  This is not a flambe) and add the vodka. Place back on the stove and add the tomatoes. Stir well to combine.

penne-11You should stir regularly as the sauce cooks over the medium high flame. Make sure that it does not begin to burn on the pan bottom. If the sauce appears to be reducing too quickly, lower the flame to medium.

About the same time that the pasta is done, add the cream to the sauce and stir to combine. Season the vodka sauce with salt and pepper to taste. Drain your pasta completely and quickly rinse out the pot and dry.

penne-14Pour the pasta back into the pot and add ½ cup of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and half of the brown pancetta. Stir them into the pasta and then pour the sauce into the pot. Move the pot onto a medium flame and continue cooking for one minute. Remove from the heat and stir well.

Allow the pasta and sauce to sit in the pot for two more minutes, stirring from time to time. This allows the pasta to absorb and integrate with the sauce. While the pasta is resting, cut your basil.

Stir one last time and ladle the pasta onto warmed plates. Dress with basil chiffonade, browned pancetta and a sprinkle of grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Clean the rims of your plates with a warm, moist towel and serve.

Podere le Boncie

For Giovanna Morganti of Le Bonice, it’s not about the fame or the catch phrases. In fact, I doubt the term “Super Tuscan” ever crossed her mind. For Giovanna, it was all about escaping the politics, the big business of Chianti, and having the freedom to create an honest wine. Organic, biodynamic, and non-interventionist, Le Boncie is currently making one of the purest and most natural wines in the region. This all sounds like a recipe for success, yet it’s their artisanal spirit and “smaller is better” mentality that keeps the quality so high and the press away.

Le Trame, which was once labeled Chianti Classico, consists primarily of Sangiovese with a small percentage of indigions varieties, which are mixed in with their bush-trained vines. Winemaking is truly hands-off, and aging is done completely in large neutral barrels. The result is one of the purest expressions of Tuscan terroir that you could hope to find.

2014 Podere le Boncie (Giovanna Morganti) Le Trame – The nose was intense and layered with crushed red berry fruits, leather, dusty Tuscan spices, and floral undergrowth. On the palate I found unbelievably soft textures, yet zesty, as vibrant acidity added energy, followed tart red berries, cedar and inner florals. Fine tannin mounted on the senses throughout the finish, along with saturating spiced cherry and hints of mint. (92 points) Eric Guido M

on January 13, 2018

Wonderful recipe.

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