Eliot, our middle son, developed a somewhat serious interest in cooking around the age of fourteen (1985-ish). I allow myself to believe it had something to do with me, but, if there is one thing I have learned over the years it's: you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Not the case with Eliot and cooking. For the most part, he had a natural instinct for combining the right spices with the right ingredients. When he got old enough to take on a Summer job, he became a waiter in an upscale, downtown Italian eatery. Mr. Zangrelli was so pleased with Eliot, he allowed him to work as a line cook in all three of his restaurants, and, his Summer job turned into year-round part-time. Since then, in Eliot's quest to become a paid actor, he has managed to support himself by bartending and/or cooking in fine-dining restaurants in New York, Raleigh, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and New Orleans.
Vodka sauce is considered to be a modern-day Italian sauce.
A bit about vodka sauce: Vodka sauce is a quick-to-prepare, rich-flavored, pink-colored, tomato-cream sauce that goes well with a variety of stranded or fork-friendly pasta shapes, and, some stuffed pasta dishes too (ravioli, tortellini, etc.). It contains hand-crushed tomatoes, a bit of tomato paste, cream, vodka, olive oil, onions and/or garlic and seasonings, as well as grated Parmesan, pecorino or Romano cheese.
At the discretion of the chef, it can be silky smooth or slightly-chunky, and, more often that not, slightly-spicy too -- via the addition of red pepper flakes. Some versions contain bits of meat like prosciutto or sausage too (but purists, like myself, don't like pork flavor in our vodka sauce).
Vodka sauce is not considered by experts to be an old-school Italian sauce -- when alcohol is required in the kitchen, Italians typically add a splash of red or white wine. Research reveals that vodka sauce itself is a modern-day specialty from northern Italy and was popularized in Bologna in the 1970's, in a restaurant named Dante (which makes me smile because the name of the restaurant in State College, where Eliot first worked, was named Dante's). It's said that distilling companies promoting vodka sales in Italy, who were also sponsoring recipe contents amongst Italy's chefs, are responsible for the invention of this unique sauce -- and its being swept up in Italy's Nuovo Cucina movement.
"Pasta (penne) alla vodka" took America by storm in the 1970's.
A bit about pasta alla vodka: Penne alla vodka began being served in NYC in the late 1970's and 1980's, followed by upscale Italian-American restaurants and casual trattorias nationwide. We Americans adored it. A law professor, Paula Franzese, claims her father, Luigi Franzese (born in Naples, Italy in 1931) first paired penne with vodka sauce, which he called penne alla Russia, because of the vodka. In the early 1970's, he began preparing the dish tableside at NYC's Orsini's restaurant (one of the most acclaimed restaurants of the period) -- which is how Eliot prepared and served it to me at Dante's, only with angel hair pasta in place of penne.
Why I don't always believe everything the experts have to say:
A bit of vodka sauce logic from Melanie: At risk of criticism, I find it hard to believe that someone wasn't making vodka sauce in Italy prior to the 1970's. I'm Eastern European -- I know a thing or two about vodka:
"Don't leave home without it."
Russian vodka began being exported to Sweden in 1505, and, because Russian soldiers marched across Europe to fight in several wars leading up to the WWI -- early vodka may have come in cruder form, but it was available.
From any savvy cook's standpoint, when a sauce combining acidic tomatoes and sweet cream is in need of alcohol, adding crystal-clear, flavorless vodka (to release and neutralize the acids in the tomatoes, which in turn enhances the sweetness of the cream) makes perfect sense -- I find the thought of using any type of sweet, dry or tannic wine to brighten the flavor of this sauce extremely unappealing. Past that, I seriously don't care if vodka sauce or pasta alla vodka is Italian or Italian-American.
Over the years, I've tasted lots of pasta with vodka sauce recipes. I can't recall any one in particular that I did not like, but I can talk about the one that I like the best: Eliot's (and there is no nepotism involved). It's got clean, bold flavor, and, truthfully I love it tossed with delicate angel hair pasta. What is slightly different about it is: when the vodka is added, it is not ignited, it is allowed to simmer gently. Don't roll your eyes, there is science to back this up. In the case of this dish, simmering, rather than flaming, allows the alcohol molecules (which are similar to sugar molecules) to develop a sweet taste rather than a bitter edge -- trust me on this point.
1/4 cup minced yellow onion
1 teaspoon each: dried basil and dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon each: garlic powder, red pepper flakes and sea salt
1 28-ounce can imported Italian peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 ounces 100-proof vodka
1 cup heavy or whipping cream
4 tablespoons finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese + additional cheese at tableside
12 ounces angel hair pasta
1 tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning pasta water
~ Step 1. Drain and reserve the juice from the tomatoes. Place the drained tomatoes in a colander, and, using your hands, crush them into pulpy pieces. This will result in about 1 cup of tomato bits and 1 cup of flavorful tomato juice.
Note: The tomato juice is not an ingredient in this recipe, but, it can be. In the event you wish to thin the sauce down a bit, this is what you want to use to do it. I freeze mine, to use in a host of other recipes!
Mince the onion and set aside. Grate the cheese and set aside (I always grate more than I need to keep on hand -- your looking at a 1 cup here). Measure and have ready all other ingredients.
~ Step 2. In a 12" skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion, spices and salt. Increase heat to saute, until onion is just beginning to soften, about 1 minute. Lower heat to medium. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste and vodka. Adjust heat to simmer gently but steadily, about 2-3 minutes.
~ Step 4. In an 8-quart stockpot bring 5 quarts of water to a boil over high heat and add the salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 1-1/2 minutes. Do not overcook pasta. Drain into a colander, give it a good shake (to remove excess water), then, immediately add the steaming-hot pasta to the warm sauce in the skillet. Using one or two forks, toss like a salad, until pasta is enrobed in the sauce.
Don't wait one moment: twirl it up & serve w/a bit more cheese:
I simply adore a tightly-wound mound of heavenly pasta!
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; colander; microplane grater; 12" skillet w/lid, preferably nonstick; ; large spoon; 8-quart stockpot; one or two large forks
Click into Categories 3, 4, 12, 14 or 21 to get my recipe for ~ Mel's Got Spaghetti "a la Carbonara" on Her Mind ~. Another simple dish with fond memories and a rich history!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)