Everyone’s favorite Penne ala Vodka is very easily made using a store-bought vodka, which if you read my site religiously (A. Thank You and B.), you know I’m totally a fan of taking shortcuts. BUT, and I mean this seriously, BUT there is a HUGE different between a fresh batch of vodka sauce and your store-bought variety. Test it out and see for yourself. Obviously, the 1/2 lb. of pancetta helps make this dish extra extra special.
SHOPPING LIST: 1 lb. penne, 1/2 lb. pancetta (preferably diced), white onion, garlic, tomato paste, vodka, heavy cream, butter, olive oil, salt, pepper
As always, let’s make sure our pasta is properly cooked al dente to begin. Bring a large pot of water to boil, heavily salt your water once it begins to simmer, and then cook your pasta about 7-8 minutes until semi-soft and al dente. The best trick in the pasta game is to ALWAYS finish cooking your pasta in the sauce. That’s how your pasta will really absorb all the flavors of the sauce as opposed to just being coated in the sauce. Before you strain your penne, reserve 1/2 cup of your heavily salted pasta water. After you strain your penne, douse it with olive oil and give it a nice toss so that you penne doesn’t stick together.
Before we begin our sauce, we need to prep our pancetta, onion and garlic. When you do your shopping, look out for the DICED pancetta, 2 packages of which will equal 8 oz. or 1/2lb. If you have to go to a butcher for your pancetta, just ask for 1/2 lb. and you can always dice it at home. Next, you are going to FINELY dice 1/4 of a white onion and about 6 cloves of garlic. If you are using pre-chopped garlic, you’ll add 2 tB. when we get there.
To get started we are going to add all of the diced pancetta into a large saucepan with high sides and get that going over medium-high heat. We always start bacon and cured meat in a COLD pan because after about 5 minutes or so, your pancetta will start to crisp and release it’s natural fats in which it will cook. Give the pancetta a good mix with your wooden spoon, add 2 tB. of butter, and then add your diced onion and finely minced garlic (or pre-chopped garlic) to the simmering pancetta. Let the pancetta and vegetables cook another 5 minutes until the onions are translucent, then add an entire tube of tomato paste and use your spoon to really mix the tomato paste in. Once you see the tomato paste starting to simmer you are going to add 3/4 cup of VODKA…
NOW THIS IS THE OPTIONAL PART (if you are using a gas stove-top) — after you add your vodka, you can slightly tilt your pan so that the vodka will catch FIRE! DON’T WORRY! This is actually the proper way to make Penna ala Vodka and the fire REALLY helps cook out the alcohol. If you DO NOT want to burn your house down (kidding!), use a wooden spoon to incorporate the vodka into the tomato paste, pancetta and vegetable mix and allow it to simmer for 5 minutes.
Finally, you are going to add 1 cup of heavy cream and the 1/2 cup of the pasta liquid that you reserved earlier. The natural starches from the pasta liquid are really going to help thicken your sauce. Allow the sauce to again come to a simmer and then it’s time to season. A generous pinch of salt and pepper and a dash of red pepper flakes depending your liking. Taste with the back of your spoon and add more salt, pepper or red pepper to your liking. Re-add your olive oil-tossed penne into your large saucepan and mix well with the wooden spoon, allowing the pasta to finish cooking in the sauce for about 3 minutes.
Note to self: plate and eat immediately. The piping hot sauce, the crispy pancetta, the flecks of fiery pepper flakes – this is just one of those dishes you just want to DIVE in.