This penne pasta dish tossed in a light and smooth tomato cream vodka sauce is an Italian-American classic, penne alla vodka.
I much prefer making penne vodka from scratch rather than buying jarred vodka sauce. It comes together quickly with a few staple ingredients I always keep in my kitchen. This penne pasta dish tossed in a light and smooth tomato cream vodka sauce is an Italian-American classic, penne alla vodka. The vodka is used to bring out the flavors of the tomato in the sauce while also acting as an emulsifier to keep it all together. Make sure that the sauce cooks for a few minutes with the vodka in it to rid it of any extra alcohol. The grilled chicken adds a slight smokiness to offset the sweetness of the vodka sauce. Serve the pasta without the chicken or sub with another favorite protein like shrimp!
Onion – I use yellow onion in this recipe for its mellow flavor when cooked. These onions with a brownish yellow papery skin are a great all-purpose cooking onion.
Tomato paste – Tomato paste is concentrated tomatoes that have been cooked down until it becomes a thick, dense paste. I try to buy tubes of tomato paste rather than small cans. The tubes allow you to reseal and keep the paste for later (they last a long time) resulting in less waste.
Vodka – As the name implies, vodka is used to give this sauce flavor. It both enhances the flavor of the tomatoes and helps to emulsify the sauce. The slight bite left by the vodka after the alcohol burns off also helps to balance the sweetness of the tomatoes.
Heavy cream – I add heavy cream, the thick part of the milk that rises to the top due to its high fat content to the pasta sauce to create a rich, creamy sauce. Adding some of the pasta cooking water along with the heavy cream makes the sauce glossy and even creamier.
Penne pasta – Tubular shapes of pasta like penne capture some of the creamy vodka sauce in the holes. While penne is classically paired with vodka, other noodles can be substituted instead.
How to make this recipe
Sauté the onion and garlic. Heat a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the olive oil and heat through, then add the butter and allow to melt. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and sauté until just fragrant.
Add the tomato paste. Continue to sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine, letting the paste cook for about 2 minutes, until deep red.
Cook off the alcohol. Add the vodka and stir to combine, then let reduce by half before stirring in the cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper then add the red pepper flakes.
Make the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to the boil; add the salt and bring back to the boil. Pour in the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 10 minutes. Drain and return the pasta to the pot. Ladle the vodka sauce over the pasta and stir to combine.
Serve. Ladle the pasta into warmed pasta bowls and top with basil, Parmesan cheese and chicken slices.
Variations on this recipe
Add grilled chicken:
To grill the chicken. Heat a grill to medium-high heat. Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper on both sides. Grill the chicken, flipping once, until cooked through, about 5-6 minutes on each side. Remove and let rest on a cutting board for 10 minutes. Slice chicken and set aside.