Thursday, January 7, 2010

penne alla vodka - i have the battle wounds to prove it

penne alla vodka - 28My final days here at my parents were nearing, and I still hadn't made a meal meal for them. And by meal, I mean some type of pasta, because that's all I basically know how to make. I went through the recipes on Cook's Illustrated looking for pasta dishes (I can't even explain how ecstatic I am that I have this membership now) and I decided upon Penne Alla Vodka. While I'm not too much of a fan of Penne Alla Vodka, I knew that I would probably not be able to make it on my own anytime in the future (Duh, why would I waste my own perfectly good vodka for pasta sauce?). So I set my eyes on my parents' fully-stocked liquor cabinet and I began to cook.

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Just like a typical tomato sauce recipe, it begins with garlic and onion. (P.S. I love this garlic masher thing; it made me feel so high-tech in terms of garlic chopping.)

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So as I'm taking my usual 10 minutes to chop an onion, my mom comes up from behind me and lets me know that I'm chopping an onion wrong. Wait...there are rules to chop an onion? I don't even cut it the same way twice; I really just peel back the skin and chop it any way I decide at that given moment. Apparently I needed to get schooled in Onion Chopping 101, which my mother happily advised me in. I have to say, this way is really a lot easier, and not to mention faster.

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Now on to make the tomato sauce. I asked my mom beforehand if she had tomato paste, which she said she did. I looked far and wide for this mysterious tomato paste, yet it was nowhere to be found. Apparently my mom actually takes out tablespoons of tomato paste and freezes them individually, so she can gradually use the right amount when needed. I have to say, what an interesting yet smart idea.

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The tomato paste, onion, and garlic get cooked for a while, awaiting the arrival of the tomatoes. Cook's Illustrated goes into some crazy detail about straining and separating and mashing or something. Once again, I disregard that, and just poured in an entire can of crushed tomatoes.

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So usually when recipes state to add chili flakes, I completely ignore it. I hate spicy food, and more importantly I don't own any chili flakes. My parents on the other hand, love spicy food and basically forced me to add them. Yuck- look how much chili flakes are in there... This is going to be way too spicy for me.

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Now on to the best part... the vodka. I'm not sure how the vodka works in this dish, but apparently it gets cooked out because no one wants to eat vodka-flavored pasta. (Note how we're representing the Viking heritage? hehe)

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So FYI: When you put liquor into something boiling hot, it is going to attack you. Seriously, even the recipe mentions how angry it will get (well I think they said it could get "too vigorous"... a.k.a. attack you!) Another tidbit- hot pasta sauce on your skin is painful.

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So after stirring my arm off for about 10 minutes (to attempt to calm down the scorching sauce), it started to subside, and so I added the cream. While the sauce rested, I did what I knew that I could do properly- boil pasta.

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The pasta gets immediately added to sauce, so that the both of them can mingle together and create the famous Penne Alla Vodka.

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So I took my first bite and I have to say, it really did taste like Penne Alla Vodka. I was quite surprised, because I thought I did something wrong when the sauce kept "vigorously" attacking me (more so than the recipe seemed like it would).

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One problem though... It was too spicy for me to eat! That was the only thing that I had an issue with. I have never had a spicy Penne Alla Vodka, so to me, it didn't taste completely authentic.

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Well I guess the good news was that my parents loved it.

Taken from Cook's Illustrated.

1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes , drained, liquid reserved (I used crushed tomatoes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 small onion , minced (about 1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (I put 1/2 teaspoon for my parents, which is probably why I couldn't handle it)
Table salt
1/3 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves (omitted)

1. Puree half of tomatoes in food processor until smooth. Dice remaining tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine pureed and diced tomatoes in liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1 2/3 cups). Add reserved liquid to equal 2 cups. (too complicated!)
2. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are light golden around edges, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Stir in tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Remove pan from heat and add vodka. Return pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until alcohol flavor is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower heat to medium if simmering becomes too vigorous (it became too vigorous!). Stir in cream and cook until hot, about 1 minute.
4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water (I didn't need any), and transfer pasta back to Dutch oven. Add sauce to pasta and toss over medium heat until pasta absorbs some of sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in basil and adjust seasoning with salt.

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