There is a neat little restaurant right up the hill from me on Haight Street called Zare' (now closed as of summer 2003) that serves up a great Penne alla Vodka. You can sit out in the back garden on a nice day and have a delicious lunch (they also have heat lamps for days that aren't so nice)--but I also always think as I am leaving Zare that I too have a nice patio, and that with a little guidance I could probably whip up a mean Penne with Vodka for a lot less that $12 or whatever they charge.
I saw Lidia cooking her Penne alla Vodka on television the other day and last night I was looking for a quick dish to whip up and I decided it was time to try her penne. I made a couple minor changes to the master recipe to cut out a few steps (used crushed tomatoes instead of dirtying up the food processor by pureeing them). I also used fresh strips of basil instead of parsley. But it went something like this...all told it took about 15 minutes tops to make. I heated up some olive oil and dropped in a couple whole cloves of smashed garlic. Poured in the tomatoes, and stirred in crushed red peppers. Added the vodka, eventually the cream--and mixed in the drained pasta and parmesan cheese. Then I sprinkled the torn basil over all of it.
This is one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes. Be warned though -it certainly isn't for the carbophobics out there, because it is hard to eat just one serving.
Penne alla Vodka
One 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) with their liquid
1 pound penne
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 cloves garlic, peeled
Crushed hot red pepper
1/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil for finishing the sauce, if you like
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for passing if you like
Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in an 8-quart pot over high heat.
Pour the tomatoes and their liquid into the work bowl of a food processor. Using quick on/off pulses, process the tomatoes just until they are finely chopped. (Longer processing will aerate the tomatoes, turning them pink.)
Stir the penne into the boiling water. Bring the water back to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, 8 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Whack the garlic cloves with the side of a knife and add them to the hot oil. Cook, shaking the skillet, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Lower the work bowl with the tomatoes close to the skillet and carefully ? they will splatter ? slide the tomatoes into the pan. Bring to a boil, season lightly with salt and generously with crushed red pepper, and boil 2 minutes. Pour in the vodka, lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer, and simmer until the pasta is ready.
Just before the pasta is done, fish the garlic cloves out of the sauce and pour in the cream. Add the 2 tablespoons butter or oil, if using, and swirl the skillet to incorporate into the sauce. If the skillet is large enough to accommodate the sauce and pasta, fish the pasta out of the boiling water with a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauce in the skillet. If not, drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and pour in the sauce. Bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, stirring to coat the pasta with sauce. Check the seasoning, adding salt and red pepper if necessary. Sprinkle the parsley over the pasta and boil until the sauce is reduced enough to cling to the pasta.
Remove the pot from the heat, sprinkle 3/4 cup of the cheese over the pasta, and toss to mix. Serve immediately, passing additional cheese if you like.
Makes 6 servings.
from Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Bastianich (Knopf, 2001) - reprinted with permission