Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Penne Alla Vodka

I am blessed with a boyfriend who is wonderfully open-minded when it comes to what I feed him. My cooking experiments never worry him, and as he says it himself, he'll eat it once, just to see if he likes it. As nice as it is, I still am the happiest girl in the world when he really loves what I cook, and the little recipe below was a huge hit (at least it was, once I found the proper flavor balance). Aside from being a fearless eater, my man is also Russian. I knew very little about the culture, and even less about the cuisine, when I met him. Turns out there is much more to it than potatoes, Tchaikovsky, organized crime and frozen tundra. Russian cuisine is perfect for Canadian winter, as the basic idea behind most of it is to keep you going (and keep you warm!) through endless, bitterly cold winter days.

Now, this recipe is not Russian (but fear not, I will get to traditional Russian dishes soon enough; it's getting cold in Montreal!). At all. It's not even Italian, in fact, but I had a feeling he might like it, because like any self respecting Rouski, he loves his vodka. Pasta alla vodka was created in New York, during the 50's, when the now-omnipresent Eastern European spirit became hugely popular in North America, and people started using it in everything. There is now hardly an Italian restaurant where you won't see this on the menu. It is traditionally served on pennes, but any tubular pasta does it justice. Pictured below are some rigatonni, which I had on hand at the time.

If you allow me to wax romantic for a minute, I have to confess I have a soft spot for this recipe because it's a perfect example of how the combination of two very different cultures can make something absolutely divine. At the end of the day, no matter what our cultural background is, we all want to eat. We all have our particular way of cooking, and when we dare to put our heads together and combine our knowledge, we can create pure happiness, at the very least in our plates. As exasperated as I am with some Americans (the insane ones; the sane ones reading this are cool, obviously), I have to admit that some gems came from the (sometimes unwilling) cultural clashes of their melting pot areas; in this case, Brooklyn. My hat's off to the Russian who spilled his vodka in some Italian cook's saucepan. The result is neither really Russian nor really Italian, but it is fabulous!

For those who need reassuring, you can't get drunk eating this dish (sorry to my alcoholic friends!). Wine and spirits are used very often in cooking and baking, and almost all the alcohol evaporates in the heat. All that's left behind is the taste and a subtle je-ne-sais-quoi… This recipe makes a creamy tomato sauce, with a tangy seasoning and the subtle heat of the vodka. It's so easy and so delicious that you clearly have no good excuse not to run to your pots and pans as soon as you've read the recipe. Even vegans have no excuses, because the cream can be substituted for slivered almonds, and it will still taste awesome! Find yourself 3 other people to feed and go get:

2 teaspoons olive oil
4 cloves minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup vodka (I use Moskovskaya, because it's my man's fave)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup cooking cream (15% is just perfect)
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil, plus extra for garnish
1 package dry penne or rigatonni

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. When the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to package instruction. Preheat a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the oil, garlic and crushed red peppers to the saucepan and sauté for about a minute, until fragrant, being careful not to burn. Add the crushed tomatoes, vodka, thyme, oregano, salt and black pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes, then stir in the cream and simmer, mixing constantly for a couple of minutes. Cover and turn the heat down a bit to bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the basil leaves to the sauce, and mix the sauce and pasta together in the pot. Serve, garnished with a little basil on top.

To veganize, replace the 1/2 cup of cream with 1/2 cup slivered almonds, and pulse the sauce with an immersion blender until it’s creamy (Isa Chandra Moskowitz has a version in “Veganomicon” that works well) before adding your chopped basil leaves.

Serve this with a cute spinach or mixed greens salad with a clean-tasting dressing and a nice, fruity red wine, like a merlot, and you have a quick, yet incredibly classy evening meal.

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