Penne alla Vodka
1/2 yellow onion or equivalent amount of shallots, finely chopped
Pinch red pepper flakes (to taste), optional
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
*Optional 4 ounces diced pancetta or bacon (can also add sausage removed from the casing or shrimp as an alternative)
1 cup tomato puree (Mutti or an imported Italian brand)
1/2 cup good quality vodka (something you would drink)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound Penne Pasta (or Pennette)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
handful fresh basil leaves (optional)
Sauté the onion/shallots in butter over medium heat. (Note: if you are cooking pancetta or bacon with the sauce, add it with the onion and allow it to cook down and render, but not get crispy. If you are adding shrimp, add the shrimp at this time, but remove them and set them aside while the sauce and pasta cook, return them to the sauce at the very end with the pasta).
Add the tomato puree, reduce heat to low and cook for several minutes. Add the vodka and cook down for 15 minutes. (Note: it is ok to flambe the vodka, just make sure to have the bottle away from you when you ignite the pan). Let sauce cook cook down until there is no longer any strong smell of vodka, and the alcohol is burned off. Then add the cream and continue to simmer, stir as needed.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to a boil, add generous amount of sea salt, then drop the pasta, stir, and cook to very al dente (less time than indicated on the package). You should plan to drop the pasta after you add the cream to the sauce and the sauce with the cream is simmering.
Strain the pasta, reserve a cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta and a splash of cooking water to the sauce and turn up the heat to high for 1-2 minutes. Add in some basil leaves and stir, making sure to coat the pasta well with the sauce and allow the pasta to cook a little. You want it to still be al dente when you serve, but it should cook a minute or two with the sauce to combine and adhere. This step which Italians (but not all Americans) do, combining the pasta and sauce and stirring together to finish cooking together for a hot pasta dish, and simply tossing well like a salad for a room temperature dish, like Pesto works wonders to get the flavors to marry. Remove to a serving bowl, add the grated cheese and stir together. The result will be a creamy, velvety sauce, a total crowd pleaser. Serve immediately with additional grated or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and red pepper flakes.
Note: In the event you don’t wish to cook with vodka, you can always deglaze the sauce with white wine or Cognac. If you prefer not to include alcohol, you will still have a luscious, velvety pink sauce that will be delicious. The only caveat is if that is the case, and you are cooking it with pancetta, bacon, or sausage, you should cook that separately and remove the meat from the rendered grease and then add it to the sauce, as the deglazing with alcohol helps to burn off fat. You will still end up with a very flavorful sauce. If you are looking to cut calories, you can also use fat free half and half, though use less of it, and the sauce will still come out pinkish, but not quite as creamy, though the cheese will help. The best Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy is a must here, as it is a critical component of this dish. In fact, any Italian dish that calls for “Parmesan” cheese must include the real thing from Italy, grated fresh the day of use preferably. There are many products out there claiming to be “Parmesan” cheese, some with clever packaging that would make one think they are from Italy and the real deal. Caveat emptor. It must say Parmigiano Reggiano, and it is not cheap. Cheeses that sell for under $10 a pound or pre-grated in a container are likely not the real deal, and will dramatically affect the end result of your dish. This is one place you cannot substitute or skimp. A Grana Padano is a reasonable substitute. A Pecorino Romano is a wonderful cheese, but suitable in certain dishes, as it is sharper and saltier, I wouldn’t use it here.