Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Random Recipe: Penne a la vodka

So, a few months back, the food blog The Kitchn was looking for some writers. I applied, because why not, right? I'm a regular Kitchn reader, and figured I could manage one post a week that was cooking blog style. I'd mentioned penne a la vodka here before, and figured that was a good recipe to share. I guess not, because they didn't hire me, but now I'm sharing my recipe with you!

Look, I even took the requisite "most of the ingredients" (sans refrigerated stuff) picture:

Penne a la vodka


2 boxes pasta of choice
1/2 pound chicken
1 package bacon
3 cups of shredded cheese
1 package cream cheese
1 stick butter
3 cups milk
1 little can of tomato paste
vodka (any kind. The kind I use tends to be what the household doesn't find drinkable, and so has to get used up. As I choose alcohol based on appearance of label and bottle, this occasionally happens)
spices (salt, pepper, chipotle, garlic powder, optional red pepper flakes)

There's some overlap in the beginning steps here. First off, you should fill a big ol' pot with water, salt it, and set it to boil. You might as well open the boxes of pasta now, for easy dumping.

While you're waiting for the water, you should cut up the bacon into reasonable pieces, and the chicken as well. If you don't want to deal with raw chicken like, ever, or just not tonight, you can use any kind here: breaded chicken tenders, rotisserie chicken, deli chicken. Whatever suits your fancy. Maybe you don't want chicken at all. It's cool.

Anyway. Done cutting raw meat? Wash your hands (if you're like me, you already put the colander in the sink and will have to move it so as not to get it soapy). Put some olive oil in a saucepan big enough to hold the chicken and the bacon, and get that warmed up. I tend to throw some garlic powder and chipotle in the oil as well, as it heats. Once the pan is hot enough, put in the bacon first and let it start to render, and add the chicken after that. Season to your preference. Resist the urge to stir it a whole bunch. I know you want to. I always want to. Read a book or something. Do standing yoga poses. Work on tricks with the dog (Elka has learned some of her most useful tricks in the kitchen: stay, back up, move, leave it). Wash your hands.

Is the water boiling? Dump your boxes of pasta, give it a stir, and set your timer. I tend to knock off 2-3 minutes from the box's shortest cooking time. The whole wheat penne I used said 10-12 minutes, so I tried 7 to start. Put your colander back in the sink so it's ready when the pasta's ready.

Here's where you decide if you have enough shredded cheese (if you were lazy and bought already shredded cheese, which I do a lot of the time. I admit it) or if you need to grate some. Again, there's variety available to you. Most penne a la vodka contains a parmesan-y type cheese; I'll frequently go half Asiago, half cheddar. Or sometimes just all cheddar. Whatever suits your fancy.

If your chicken and bacon are suitably done (the bacon won't really get crispy like this, but is reasonably textured. The chicken is lovely,) turn off the heat. Is your pasta done? Regardless of what the timer said, test it to be sure. If it's ready, reserve a cup or so of pasta water, if you're into that kind of thing (I've never in my life done this but heard it's useful) and drain the rest. Do not rinse your pasta. You should never rinse your pasta because mumblemumbleAlton Brown says mumble okay I don't know why. Only rinse your pasta if it will ruin the world otherwise.

Return the big ol' pasta pot to the stove, on medium heat. Cut up your butter into 6ish chunks and toss them in. Do the same to the cream cheese. Get out a wire whisk (or a silicon coated one, if you've got a nonstick surface you're worried about) and after it's softened for a couple moments, whisk the ingredients together. At first, the cream cheese won't really soften and will stick in your whisk. Then, the whole business will start to look kind of...curdle-y...and you'll wonder why you're following recipes on the Internet. Trust me. Keep going, and soon it will magically come together in a smooth creamy "sauce base" (that's what I call it in my head, anyway).

(See? Totally normal)

Once the butter and cream cheese are fully incorporated, with no more buttery holdouts on the surface, add 1 ½ cups of the milk. Whisk some more. Add the tomato paste (don't worry if it doesn't all come out of the can. I don't think it does. Maybe there's some super savvy food blogger tip to get it all out, but a spoon doesn't seem to do it, so whatever). It'll look like you ruined it all again, but whisk it, and it'll turn a nice tomato soup color. It should be reasonably liquid. Pour in some vodka; not a whole lot. I can assure you, if you add something like ¼ cup it will be far too much. Just put some in the bottom tomato paste can and then add it.

Leaving the heat on medium low, add the pasta back in, and stir so it all gets coated. Add the chicken and bacon, stir so that all gets coated. If the sauce is far too thick, add some more milk (or pasta water, if you reserved it). Then add the cheese and stir that until it's all melty and together. Salt as needed.