Today I attempted and I believe accomplished my first vodka pasta sauce.
Vodka sauce is somewhat prolific here in NYC and features my favourite beverage – vodka – in a creamy, tomato concoction that tastes like nothing you’ve ever eaten before. I’m sure it will be one of my strongest culinary associations with this city – it appears on pasta, pizza, meat.. anything.
The reason for the vodka is the same as the reason many Italian dishes call for red wine – to unlock the flavours in the tomatoes that are otherwise hidden. Or because you just love vodka like I do.
My version does away with the heavy cream base and still gives you a lovely rich consistency that coats the pasta in pure, sweet, creamy deliciousness.
I made mine completely from scratch because I had some overripe tomatoes I wanted to put to use, but if you are stuck for time – tinned tomatoes can be substituted for fresh. For this qty I’d say 2 tins would be the equivalent.
Welcome Back Vodka Sauce
Qty for 4 portions. I refrigerated half before plating up to stop us going for seconds. 🙂
10 small very ripe vine-ripened tomatoes
1 onion, chopped fine
1 small tin tomato paste (the single serve size, don’t get too pedantic, it can only improve the flavour)
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 cup vodka (I used Absolut – which is crazy cheap here – but you can use any reasonable tasting vodka. I would avoid super cheap vodkas even though you’re cooking it – you don’t want to compromise the balance of flavours for the sake of a few measly dollars..)
5 teaspoons grated parmesan reggiano cheese
1/2 cup no-fat Philadelphia cream cheese
Teaspoon of sugar (optional)
Fresh basil, shredded, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Pam cooking spray or similar
NB – You’ll need a blender or similar to blend the sauce into its trademark velvety consistency
Spray a medium sized saucepan with a light coating of cooking spray. On medium heat, brown chopped onion, then reduce heat to low and add tomatoes, whole, with bay leaves set atop, to the pan. Cover and allow to simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally to redistribute tomatoes and allow all to cook evenly. By the end of the hour they should be just falling apart with the skins and seeds falling into a gorgeous melee of aromatic tomato mush. Of course, if you’re using tinned tomatoes you can simply add these to your browned onion and move on to the next step.
Now you can add the tomato paste. Fill the can or container that the paste came in with water*, and add to the mixture, and repeat – keep doing this throughout the process if you feel the sauce is getting too thick as it boils and reduces away. By the way – don’t be scared if the water does keep disappearing – this is what you want! It means what’s left is even more concentrated and will be even more delicious. Also add at this point the garlic and vodka, bring to the boil for 5-6 minutes and then turn right down to a simmer again.
*If you’re a meat eater – you can substitute water for chicken stock to add another layer to the flavour of the sauce. Just be sure to taste your sauce before you add additional salt – bought chicken stock is usually loaded with sodium.
Allow the sauce to simmer for 20 minutes then remove bay leaves and stir through the grated cheeses and Philadelphia. Once combined – at least mostly – you can pour into the blender. You know that useless removable clear plastic part of the blender lid? Take it off the lid so steam can escape, and place a piece of paper towel on top to prevent splatter. Blend the sauce until you no longer see pieces of skin, onion or those pesky tomato seeds floating past.
Pour the sauce back into the saucepan, and keep it on a low simmer. Here’s where you can have a bit of a play and add seasonings to your taste. I added a hefty pinch of cracked black pepper and ground sea salt, a teaspoon of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of shredded basil – but it’s completely up to your taste. I think that’s the fun part of cooking – making a carefully nuanced balance of sweet, salty, sour to suit your taste. If you’re not sure and it just tastes bland start with salt and pepper in small proportions, and add in tiny increments until you’re happy. If you’ve used tinned tomatoes you will definitely need the sugar to balance out the acidity. The aroma and natural sweetness of basil will also help lift the flavour. Stir and keep warm until served. The extra simmer time will not hurt the sauce, trust me. Tomatoes looooooove a long cooking time.
I cleaned then chopped four organic (& hormone and antibiotic free) chicken thighs into strips and cooked in a frypan before adding to the sauce. This plus the Quinoa pasta spirals made for a really amazing, relatively guilt free dinner to warm the heart and fill the stomach. Perfect welcome back… or don’t leave me.. dinner.
Now, what to do with the rest of that vodka….. ha!