Rigatoni alla Vodka
Vodka sauce, at its base, is a tomato and cream sauce laced with a bit of red pepper and a splash of vodka. These days it is more of an Italian-American dish than proper Italian, though it did originate in the old country.
That origin is somewhat debated, though the story that makes the most sense to me, and one that I have read many times, has to do with simple economics. Back in the 1970s, vodka distillers were attempting to get their product to take hold in Italy. In addition to the typical advertising, they sought out the somewhat unusual path of trying to get chefs to use it in the kitchen. While this advertising route seems strange to me, it may have been what led to pasta alla vodka, which has quickly become one of my personal favorite meals to cook.
But the question stands, particularly if it was all a marketing ploy, does the vodka actually add anything to the sauce? The evidence appears to say yes. At low concentrations, alcohol increases the perception of aroma, so the splash of vodka serves to just bump that flavor meter up a notch. This is part of the reason why wine is often used in cooking. Additionally, the alcohol serves as an emulsifier, helping to keep the mixture of tomato and cream silky smooth.
Anecdotally, I have forgotten to add the vodka when making this dish in the past and not realized until I tasted the final product and found it a touch lackluster. I certainly didn’t think that splash of liquor would make much of a difference, but there you go.
I typically make this dish with rigatoni, but penne is also common. Both are tube pastas which hold the sauce well. Always do your research when making pasta. Some noodles simply are not compatible with some sauces.
My final tip is to definitely buy double-concentrated tomato paste if it is available. This stuff comes in a tube rather than a can, and, as the name implies, is twice as potent. The extra concentration creates a deeper, richer flavor in your sauce.
Rigatoni alla Vodka
1 lb. rigatoni or penne
1 large shallot
4 cloves garlic
4 oz. parmesan, grated
3 tbsp olive oil
1 4.5 oz. tube of double-concentrated tomato paste
½ tsp crushed red pepper
¼ tsp black pepper
2 oz. vodka
¾ cup heavy cream
Basil to garnish
Start water for pasta in a pot and add a liberal quantity of salt. When boiling, toss the rigatoni in. In the meantime, start work on the sauce.
Add olive oil to dutch oven over medium heat. Chop shallots and garlic very finely and add to the pan with oil. Cook until browning at the edges, 5 or 6 minutes. Once the shallots begin to brown, add the tomato paste and red pepper. Cook this until the paste darkens slightly and sticks to the bottom.
Deglaze the pan with the vodka. Be sure to scrape the bottom of any dark burned bits. As this is boiling, scoop ¼ cup of the pasta water and add ¾ cup heavy cream. The pasta water brings the cream up to temperature so that it will not scald when added to the hot pan.
Reduce the heat to low and slowly stir the cream in. Once the cream is in, add half the grated parmesan a bit at a time while stirring, allowing it to melt into the mix. Then add another half cup of pasta water a bit at a time, stirring the whole time. This thins the sauce a bit. If you’d like the sauce a bit thinner, you can keep adding water a bit at a time, but probably no more than another quarter cup.
Serve the pasta topped with the remaining parmesan cheese, a few cranks of black pepper, and a bit of chopped fresh basil.