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~Eliot's Angel Hair Pasta with Creamy Vodka Sauce~

IMG_7551Eliot, 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.

IMG_7516A 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).

IMG_7539Vodka 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:

IMG_7449A 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.

IMG_7570Get organized:  Including prep, this goes from stovetop to table in about 20 minutes!  

IMG_74522  tablespoons olive oil

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

IMG_7467~ 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 IMG_7465not 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.

IMG_7488 IMG_7482~ 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.

IMG_7497~ Step 3.  Slowly stir in the cream, and, when the mixture returns to a gentle but steady simmer, continue to cook until it slightly reduced and nicely thickened, 3-4 minutes.  

IMG_7520Stir in the cheese and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and turn the heat off, but, allow sauce to IMG_7524remain on warm stovetop.

~ 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!

IMG_7547Eliot's Angel Hair Pasta with Creamy Vodka Sauce:  Recipe yields 2 main-course serving or 4 smaller side servings servings.

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

IMG_5124Cook's Note:  Besides pizza, angel hair pasta with vodka sauce is one of two Italian dishes I get late night cravings for.  Don't ask me why, I tend to crave spaghetti at midnight!  

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)


~My Mad Men Last Supper Menu: Chicken a la King~

IMG_7424In the 1950's, '60's and '70's, New York City's Madison Avenue was ground zero for the advertising industry -- for almost all of those years, it was an elitist club of all-male executives. These Madison ad men, cavalierly referred to themselves as Mad Men.  Unless you've just beamed to earth from another corner of the universe, you know, that for the past six years, Mad Men has been a period drama television series about this business and the bizarre lifestyle of the people working in it.  For those lucky enough to remember the realities of this time period, it's a lot more than entertainment.  For those too young to "get it", it's a surreal learning experience.  

Mad_men_fallThe moment the theme song begins, the free-fall through the looking glass into this recent-past world begins, and we viewers get to experience, in crystal-clear detail, for better or worse, how we got to where we are today:  a full-blown media-driven, money-talks society. It reveals social bias, double-standards and power-lust in such a crafty, powerful way, we crave to watch it, and, openly discuss it too!

IMG_7352It all ends tonight when the finale airs at 10:00PM, and, for us foodies, it's been a particularly fun ride. From a culinary standpoint, "what's old is new again":  Mad Men cookbooks have been written, Mad Men themed parties have been given, and, fancy cocktails are back in vogue.  To accommodate the movement, I added an entire Category to Kitchen Encounters entitled:  ~ What would Don Draper do?  Retro Recipes from my past to your present! ~.  I'm not going to lie, when Mad Man is airing, even in reruns, Category 26 is a busy place indeed, with a lot of Man Men fans visiting there for "new" old ideas.

IMG_3798For me, the perfect ending to this show would be an announcement telling us they're renewing the show for six more years (or even one), but, that's clearly unlikely.  In lieu of that delusion, I pondered what I'd serve for my Mad Men Last Supper. Surprisingly, it came to me quite quickly.  The leap from "a retro recipe fit for the kingpin of the show" to "chicken a la king" only took me a few sips of my favorite cocktail!

A bit about classic chicken a la king vs. chicken pot pie -- Chicken a la king is not pot pie & vice versa.

In its purest form, chicken a la king is a refined, American restaurant dish consisting of perfectly-poached white-meat chicken stirred into a silky sherry-cream bechamel-type sauce containing mushrooms, and, green peppers (although peas are commonly substituted by people who don't care for peppers).  Classically, it's served served over toast points, puff pastry or rice (with noodles or pasta being acceptable substitutions).  Pot pie is a very thick, gravy-like stock-based chicken stew that contains noodles or is topped with a pastry crust.  Worst case pot pie recipes are made using cream of chicken soup.  For those of you who disagree with my assessment:

IMG_7370In 1980, in a New York Times article, Craig Claiborne shared the original recipe for chicken a la king (reprinted from a brochure given to him by a reader).  Here is the original ingredients list:

butter, chopped green pepper, sliced mushrooms, flour, salt, cream,  poached chicken, egg yolks, onion juice, lemon juice, sherry, pimiento (for garnish), toast points (for serving)

Notice:  The original recipe contains no chicken stock, it is made with a cream-based bechamel-type sauce, and, pimientos are a garnish, not a stirred in ingredient (all of which are common misconceptions in modern day chicken a la king recipes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, chicken a la king was the pinnacle of upscale comfort food in New York City.  In that era, almost anything with a vaguely-sounding French name was adopted by appetites of the rich and powerful.  That said, it's not French, and,  there are several NYC restaurant chefs claiming the origin of the dish, most notably:  Delmonico's, the Brighton Beach Hotel, and, the Plaza.  The most credible account, however, is that it was created in the 1890's by a hotel cook, William "Bill" King, of the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, as it appeared in his obituary in 1915, as well as a New York Tribune editorial written shortly thereafter.

IMG_7420In the 1950's, this dish was a staple on the menus of elegant wedding receptions, expensive banquets, and, fancy sit-down in-home dinner parties all across America.  Sadly, as James Beard lamented in his 1972 book, James Beard's American Cookery, "chicken a la king, now usually prepared in a mediocre fashion, can be quite good if prepared with care, using fine ingredients."  

That can be said of many things Americans eat, but, since I'm in the business of writing and publishing really-good, high-quality recipes I'm stealing a quote from Don Draper:

"If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation!"

IMG_7482For the chicken:

6  cups water

2  cups white wine

4  medium-sized dried bay leaves

juice from 1 lemon, cut in half

2 pounds chicken tenders, chopped into 3/4" chunks (Note: Boneless, skinless chicken breasts can be substituted with some compromise in taste and texture.)

IMG_7375 IMG_7361~ Step 1. In an 8-quart stockpot, bring the water, wine, lemon juice, lemon rinds and bay leaves to a boil.  Add the chicken.  

Start timing immediately, and, cook until chicken is tender and just cooked through, about 6 minutes.  

Drain into a colander, squeeze any juices and pulp remaining in the lemons over all, give everything a toss and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Chop chicken into bite-sized 3/4" pieces and set aside.


IMG_7511For the sauteed vegetables:

3  tablespoons salted butter

12  ounces white mushroom caps, sliced

1/2  teaspoon garlic powder

1/2  teaspoon salt

1 1/2  cups frozen peas and diced carrots combo, unthawed

~ Step 1.  Slice the mushrooms as directed.  In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the mushrooms.

IMG_7532 IMG_7519~ Step 2. Add garlic powder and salt, increase heat to medium-high & cook until 'schrooms are losing moisture & mixture is juicy, about 6 minutes. Add frozen vegetables.  Cook until almost no moisture remains, 5-6 minutes.  Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside.


IMG_7544For the silky sherry cream sauce:

4  tablespoons salted butter

4  tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/8  teaspoon nutmeg

1/2  teaspoon:  garlic powder, cayenne pepper & sea salt

3  cups heavy cream + up to 1/2 cup milk, to control consistency

2  cups finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)*

2-4  tablespoons sherry, to taste

*Note:  Parmigianno-Reggiano cheese is not a classic ingredient, but, when I'm serving a la king w/pasta I've gotta have it's tang, and, my family demands it.  When I'm serving it with anything else, I do not put it in.  Feel free to omit it with zero compromise in flavor or texture to the sauce.

IMG_7563 IMG_7559~ Step 1.  In a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan, melt the butter over low heat.

Increase heat to medium and stir in the flour, nutmeg, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and sea salt. Using a large spoon or a small whisk, stirring constantly, cook until mixture (roux) is thick, smooth and bubbly, about 30-45 seconds.  This happens really fast.

IMG_7576 IMG_7573~ Step 2. Add the cream, in a slow steady stream, stirring or whisking constantly.

Carefully adjust heat to a gentle simmer (not too high or it will scorch) and continue to cook until smooth, thickened and drizzly, about 2 minutes. Turn the heat off.

IMG_7587 IMG_7586~ Step 3. Sprinkle in the optional Parm-Regg. Finely-grated cheese melts almost instantly.  Stir until mixture is smooth and ribbonlike, adding milk if necessary, or, just because you want the sauce a little thinner.  Add the sherry to taste.  With or without cheese, you will have 3 1/2 cups of silky-smooth sherry-cream sauce.

IMG_7379~ Step 4.  Turn heat off and fold in the chicken and vegetable mixture. Cover and allow to rest, on the warm stovetop, for 10-15 minutes, to allow the flavors time to marry. Serve scooped atop toast points, in puff pastry shells, or over steamed rice, cooked noodles or pasta. Garnish each portion with a a few pimientos, a sprinkling of cayenne pepper and/or a parsley sprig. Reheat leftover a la king mixture over low heat on the stovetop, adding a bit of milk, as necessary to control (thin) the consistency.

Taste & admit:  real-deal a-la-king exceeds all expectations!

IMG_7385Today's classic choice:  over rice with brioche toast points!

IMG_7436Mad Men Last Supper Menu:  Chicken a la King:  Recipe yields 2 generous quarts, 8+ cups of a la king mixture, or, 6-8 hearty main-course servings.

Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 8-quart stockpot; colander; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid; large spoon or small whisk 

IMG_7798Cook's Note:  Another iconic recipe of mine ~ Untangling an American Retro Classic:  Tettrazzini (Stranded Pasta baked in Parmesan Cream Sauce) ~, is nothing more than a variation on the a la king theme.  To get this recipe, just click into Category 26!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)


~ It's the Little Things: Homemade Graham Crackers~

IMG_7342A graham cracker dunked into a glass of milk.  Said with certainty, once I was removed from my high-chair and placed at the table, this is the first store-bought snack I was allowed to sink my baby teeth into.  Then, when I got to kindergarten (back in 1960 there was no such thing as daycare or preschool and kindergarten was limited to a five-hour half-day), one big graham cracker, which each one of us kids carefully cracked into four parts, was the snack the teacher handed out every morning at 10:30AM with our half-pint of milk.  After snacks, we got to color.

IMG_7335Graham cracker:  the cracker childhood memories are made of!

IMG_7213A bit about graham crackers (and graham flour):  This popular snack was invented in 1829 in New Jersey by Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, a controversial dietary reformer.  He touted his slightly-sweetened with honey and/or molasses, whole-wheat crackers as a health food as part of his Graham Diet.  Nowadays, whether commercially produced or baked-at-home from scratch, to qualify for real-deal graham cracker status, a recipe must contain graham flour (named after and marketed by Rev. Graham). Graham flour is a high-protein wheat flour in which the bran, germ and endosperm are ground separately, resulting in a coarse-textured, brown-colored whole wheat flour with a nutty flavor.  

If you bake a lot of whole-grain breads, or want to experiment with adding a bit of unique texture to some of your baked goods, keeping a bag of graham flour on hand is something to consider. Due to the oil in the wheat germ, this flour is best kept stored in the freezer to prevent rancidity.

IMG_7234For the dry mixture:

1 1/2  cups graham flour (8 ounces)

1/2  cup all-purpose flour (2 ounces)

1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon lightly-packed dark brown sugar (3 ounces)

3/4  teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder

IMG_72371/2  teaspoon baking soda

1/2  teaspoon sea salt

1/8  teaspoon ground allspice

1/8  teaspoon ground cloves

1/4  teaspoon ground cinnamon

3  ounces unsalted butter, cut into 1/4" cubes and kept chilled (3/4 stick)

IMG_7228For the wet mixture (a total of 1/2 cup of liquid):

1 3/4 ounces whole milk

1 1/2  teaspoons vanilla extract (1/4 ounce)

1  ounce honey

1  ounce mild-flavor molasses

Note:  I love my mini-liquid-measure.  It makes measuring in ounces, tablespoons, teaspoons and milliliters really easy.  

IMG_7241 IMG_7244 IMG_7247 IMG_7250~Step 1.  Place all of the dry ingredients, except for the butter, in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Using a series of 8-10 rapid on-off pulses, thoroughly combine.  Open the processor lid and add the cubed butter.  Using a second series of 20-25 rapid on-off pulses, process until the mixture resembles small, mealy crumbs.

IMG_7257 IMG_7253~ Step 2. Using a small spoon, give the wet mixture a thorough stir, so that it is uniform in color. With processor motor running, through the feedtube, in a slow steady stream add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and process until the dough forms a ball, then stop.  

Important note:  If the mixture forms a ball and you haven't added quite all of the wet mixture, stop adding it.

IMG_7261 IMG_7267~ Step 3.  The dough will be slightly sticky but quite manageable.  Carefully remove dough from the processor and place it on a 12 1/2" x 8 3/4" IMG_7269                             piece of parchment placed on top of a length of plastic. Using fingertips, pat dough into a 1/2"-thick rectangle.  Wrap and chill 1 hour.

IMG_7273~ Step 4. Line a half sheet pan with parchment.  Get out a rolling pin, a 2 1/4"-square cutter for cutting, and, a chocolate chopper to give the crackers their classic "dots on top".

IMG_7279 IMG_7283 IMG_7287~ Step 5.  Remove the dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it and invert it onto a pastry IMG_7297board that has been lightly-sprinkled with all-purpose flour.  Sprinkle the top of the rectangle with some store-bought Sugar 'n Cinnamon (or your own homemade blend of 3 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon that has been placed in a salt-shaker-type container).  This recipe uses very little of the shaker mixture so I'm opting for the more convenient store-bought stuff today. Roll the dough to a thickness of IMG_7300less than 1/4" and more than 1/8".

~ Step 6.  Using a spatula, transfer crackers to prepared baking pan.

Note:  A square cutter leaves me with almost no dough scraps.  If you have enough for an extra cracker or two, reroll and bake them too.

IMG_7308~ Step 7.  The tines of my handheld chocolate chopper makes short work of putting the classic dots on top of store-bought graham crackers.  Feel free to substitute a fork or a wooden skewer, just don't poke the holes too deep -- do not pierce through to the bottom.

IMG_7315~ Step 8. Place the pan in the refrigerator IMG_7325to chill for 30 minutes.

~ Step 9.  Remove chilled pan of crackers from refrigerator and bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven until edges of crackers are just starting to turn deep brown, about 20 minutes.  Remove from oven and place pan on a cooling rack to cool completely.  They are going to crisp up and darken as they cool, so do not overbake them.

Graham cracker:  The little thing in life that will change your life!

IMG_7336It's the Little Things:  Homemade Graham Crackers:  20, 2 1/2"-square graham crackers, with two crackers being roughly the size of one standard graham cracker.

Special Equipment List:  kitchen scale (optional); mini-liquid measure (optional); paring knife; food processor; plastic wrap; parchment paper; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; small rolling pin; 1, 2 1/4"-square cookie cutter; thin spatula; chocolate chopper or wooden skewer; cooling rack

IMG_6750Cook's Note:  Making these homemade snack crackers is not much different (or any harder) than baking cookies.  That said, when we think of crackers, we mostly think of salty crackers rather than sweet ones, and, I bake several kinds of those too.  Click into Categories 1, 2, 11 or 18 to get three of my recipes for ~ Home for the Holidays:  The Cheese Cracker Tray ~ Pictured on this plate are: cheddar logs, gorgonzola wafers and Brie shortbread!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)