I don’t eat a lot of pasta at home, but sometimes it just can’t be beat. Especially on a cold night. And a big serving of pasta topped with steaming, thick, freshly made tomato sauce, really hits the spot. And, it’s pretty easy – something that can be made fairly quickly and without much thought (or a recipe for that matter, once you get a feel for it).
So for this edition of “Last Night’s Dinner,” I made a vodka sauce, but without the vodka and heavy on the veggies. Given that vodka doesn’t really impart much flavor, if any, I never us it for this sauce. Besides, when most people think of vodka sauce, they’re thinking of a creamy tomato sauce – not a something that tastes like a Bloody Mary.
Most recipes call for adding cream and parmesan cheese at the end until incorporated into the sauce, but I’ve found that can lead to a grainy texture. So I make a cheese sauce (Mornay) separately and then fold it in, which results in a smoother and creamier consistency.
Also, a basic vodka sauce is primarily a simple sauce of crushed tomatoes and onions, along with the cream and cheese. I prefer a chunkier sauce, so you’ll notice that I used more vegetables and only pureed a portion of the sauce. If chunky’s not your thing, feel free to omit extra veggies and/or puree the entire sauce.“Vodka” Sauce with Penne Makes 4 servings
1 medium onion, diced
Salt and pepper
1 bell pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
Red pepper flakes 1 tspn anchovy paste
1 1/2 cups mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 cup red wine 1 28oz can diced tomatoes 1/2 tspn dried oregano 1 tspn dried basil
Sugar (if needed)
1 cup Mornay sauce (see below) 1 lb penne pasta Parmesan cheese for serving
In a large skillet or casserole pan, add a tablespoon of oil and bring to medium heat. Add the onions and bell peppers, season with salt and pepper and sweat until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and anchovy paste and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened, about 3-4 minutes. Add the wine, bring to a simmer and reduce by half, about 3-5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and simmer for 15-20 minutes.
While the sauce is simmering, prep the Mornay sauce (see below).
Add about half of of the tomato sauce to a blender and puree until smooth. Stir the puree into the remaining sauce and keep over low heat (If you prefer a smoother consistency, puree the entire sauce). Fold in the Mornay sauce until fully incorporated. Add the oregano and basil. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as necessary. If the sauce is too acidic, adjust with a little sugar (in 1 tspn increments).
Meanwhile, prep the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water (8-10 cups) to a boil and cook the penne until al dente, about 8-10 minutes. Drain and toss with oil to keep the pasta from clumping together.
Two options for serving. Go the easy “penne alla vodka” route and mix the pasta and sauce together. Or ladle the sauce over the pasta for a “fancy” presentation. Serve with Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top and plenty of crusty bread on the side.
Basic Mornay Sauce Makes a little more than 1 cup
1 TBSP butter 1 1/2 TBSP flour 1 cup milk, warmed
1/2 cup grated cheese (in this case I used Parmesan)
Salt and pepper
First make a roux. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter and heat until the begins to bubble. Add the flour, whisk until smooth and the roux takes on a golden brown color, about 2-3 minutes. Add the milk and bring to a low simmer. Stir often and simmer until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 3-5 minutes. Add the cheese and stir until melted and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
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Now, I realize I said up front that making pasta sauce is easy, yet this discussion and recipe might not sound so simple. But the reality remains, a tomato based sauce is still fairly easy to master. Once you’ve done that, the options for tweaking are endless. And soon enough, you’ll find yourself making pasta sauce without giving it much thought – and it will taste delicious.