There comes a point in time where we all have amassed a quiet little collection of fall-back recipes … recipes that we turn to when we don’t want to think. Whether it be a crazy weeknight where time to eat is at a premium, a weekend of entertaining but no time to plan, or just a time when you want to play it safe. I have a few recipes in my cache that fit that bill. Recipes that we nearly make often enough for me to remember the process by heart, but since my memory is lousy at best, I do the next best thing. I tape the recipes we keep going back to on the inside of my kitchen cabinets. Smart, right? I have Nicholas’ favorite pancake recipe there, a go-to dessert that all the men in the family adore, and, of course, Mom Juice.
Another recipe that has made it to the inside of our kitchen cabinets is a Penne with Vodka Sauce that Nicholas adores. Between The Husband coming home late from work today, and the two of them rushing off to a cub scout meeting after dinner, I wanted something that I could get on the table quickly, and with no opposition from the Peanut Gallery. After all, I had 30 minutes in the kitchen, and less than that at the dinner table, so time was of the essence tonight.
I made this recipe for the first time a few years ago, finding it in Karen Duffy’s cookbook A Slob in the Kitchen. Since then, we probably have it every six weeks or so. It’s a great dish to trot out when company is coming over.
It’s forgiving — one time I was so busy talking I had the sequence wrong and had to cook it extra long to cook off all the vodka. The dish was still good. Good enough that the guest herself has been making it on a regular basis for her family and guests ever since (hi Erin!).
It is flexible — don’t want to use heavy cream? Use light cream. Don’t want to use red onions? Use yellow onions or shallots. Or omit them all together. If Nicholas sees them, he’ll usually pick them all out, so I try and be kind. I’ve made this and added a little bit of frizzled prosciutto – excellent. Slivers of sun-dried tomatoes – equally good.
Quite simply, it’s just the perfect dish to have in your repertoire. It’s actually the first recipe I made the first time another friend and her son came over for dinner (hi Denise!). When they came over again for dinner months later, she requested it. And she’s made it many times since then for her own family and for her own guests. And tonight it hit her table again. It’s just that type of recipe … simple, safe, warm, comforting and, most important, delicious.
Add a loaf of garlic bread and a tossed green salad and call everyone round. Casual entertaining or crazy being-pulled-in-five-different-directions weeknights, it will rise to the occasion each and every time.
P.S. This is not the sauciest of sauces, so if you do serve it with garlic bread, you want to make sure it’s a moister version so that it can stand alone.
John Zaccaro Jr.’s Penne with Vodka Sauce
1 pound penne
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1/2 cup vodka
4 tablespoons butter
1 red onion, sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook just until al dente. Drain. In a cup, steep the red pepper flakes in the vodka and set aside while you get on with making the sauce.
In a skillet, melt the butter and saute the onion over medium-high heat until golden and translucent, 5-8 minutes. Add the vodka and pepper flakes and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Reduce the heat to low and add the cream and grated cheese. Stir well and heat thoroughly. Toss with the drained, cooked pasta.