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Rigatoni Alla Vodka

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 Rachel 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? Rachel 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.

Rigatoni alla Vodka

Note: 1/2 cup tomato paste is 2/3 of a 6-ounce can or all of a 4.5-ounce tube.
  • 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.

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