This is a deceptive little sauce. It looks more or less like plain old tomato sauce, it's just as easy to make as plain old tomato sauce. But it is not just tomato sauce; it's tomato sauce with vodka! And cream! It's richer and creamier and fancier. It's fancy tomato sauce. If you want to make it even fancier, you can serve it topped with some shrimp sautéed in garlic and butter. Or really lean into the carbs + butter combo theme of this meal and have some garlic bread.
I have been making this recipe for a few years, ever since I saw it on Smitten Kitchen, where the brilliant Deb Pereleman adapted it from a Rachel Ray recipe. But I was reluctant to post it here, for some reason I couldn't quite fathom. In her post, Deb talks about being embarrassed by the original name of the recipe: "You Won't Be Single For Long Vodka Cream Pasta". I find names like this more than just embarrassing-they make me shudder, they make my skin crawl a little. I can't say them aloud; the idea of ordering something with a name like this makes me feel unwell. Embarrassing names like this tend to turn up in bars that have house invited libations (I feel like there may be a correlation between names of this sort and bartenders who call themselves mixologists, but this is just a hunch). I wonder about the thought process behind these names. Do bartenders and menu writers do this knowing the moment of anxiety they will produce among their more neurotic customers when they contemplate saying these things? I have sometimes resorted to pointing at what I want rather than having to say the unpleasant names that proud (or malicious?) bartenders or chefs have given their inventions. If the idea of this sort of name is unfamiliar to you, browse through any Guy Fieri menu and I think you'll see what I mean. If you can contemplate saying "guy-talian" to another human being without breaking a sweat, you are a stronger person than me.
Maybe the residual embarrassing-name-shame I felt from just reading about the recipe was keeping me from sharing it. But I powered through my overdeveloped sense of awkward-name-anxiety for two reasons:
This pasta is really tasty.
And it has another name! A proper name, a sensible name. A name I can say without blushing: penne a la vodka.
penne a la vodka:
adapted from smitten kitchen
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 shallots, minced
a big pinch of red chili flakes
3/4 cup vodka
1 cup chicken stock
2 cups tomatoes, roughly chopped (if it's not tomato season, canned or frozen tomatoes are probably better than fresh)
salt and pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
lots of fresh basil, shredded
Fry garlic, shallots and chili in oil and butter over medium heat until they begin to brown. Add vodka and cook until reduced by about half. Add chicken stock and tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes are falling apart and the sauce has thickened. Add cream and simmer on medium low until the pasta is ready.
While the sauce is cooking, cook penne in a generous quantity of salted water. When the pasta is al dente drain it and toss into sauce. Serve, topped with basil and a little parmesan if you want. Call this dish whatever you like and try not to be too stressed out about it.