Well now that you know I’m a vodka and tequila girl, it should come as no surprise that I like penne alla vodka.  It’s good stuff, even though you don’t even taste the booze.

A month or so ago I was in my favorite bookstore, Brookline Booksmith, perusing their sale items as well as their food cookbooks (they happen to have fabulous sales), and I came across Lidia Bastianich.  Now, I’m not going to lie and tell you I have been watching her shows for years (I haven’t).  I only know her name because my beloved Fabio, of Top Chef Season 5 (I looove him, as well as that show), mentioned how she is the queen of Italian cooking in America.  I think she was a guest judge (see how well I paid attention).

So when I came across one of her cookbooks (on sale, no less!), I leafed through it and immediately decided I needed to own it.  My Italian collection consists of Giada, who I love, but sometimes a girl needs to branch out.  I bought it immediately, and ignored the comments I would get when I got home (“but why do you need another cookbook?”).

There have been no comments, by the way, as both of the pasta dishes I have made thus far have been immense hits.  I have also recommended the book to friends.

I started with her penne alla vodka, easy and straightforward.  My girl Lidia likes her Italian plum tomatoes (in a 35oz can, which does not exist at Trader Joe’s), which I had never used before.  Sure, I do whole peeled, crushed, petite diced, but never plum tomatoes.  Well now they rock my world, much like the diced and fire roasted do.

She’s not afraid of the kind of bad for you things, so this isn’t a dish you would eat every week.  Definitely if you’re having company, it’s easy to make and a total crowd pleaser.

And if you’re like me, you’ll eat it with some salad in a bag, rustic bread, and a big old glass of wine.  And sit down and watch something on tv.  It’s kind of sad, my husband and I eat in front of the tv, even though we have a perfectly good dining table (and an amazing one on the way).  Maybe someday we’ll turn the tv off and sit and just chat and eat.  We usually reserve that for company.

Penne alla Vodka
from Lidia Bastiianich’s “Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen”

One 35-oz can Italian plum tomatoes or if you are me, you improvise with 1 and change 28oz cans and hope for the best
1 pound whole wheat penne
1/4 cup olive oil
10 cloves garlic, peeled
crushed red pepper
1/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tb. unsalted butter or olive oil for finishing the sauce
2-3 tb. chopped fresh Italian parsley
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Bring salted water to a boil.

Pour the tomatoes and their liquid into the work bowl of a food processor.  Using quick on/off pulses, process the tomatoes just until they are finely chopped (longer processing will aerate the tomatoes, turning them pink).

Stir the penne into the boiling water.  Bring the water back to a boil, stirring frequently.  Cook the pasta, semi-covered, stirring occasionally, until done, 8-10 minutes.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat (a dutch oven works great for this.  ideally you want a pan/pot that is large enough to mix the sauce and pasta in). Whack the garlic cloves with the side of a knife and add them to the hot oil.  Cook, shaking the skillet, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 3 minutes.  Add the tomatoes carefully.  Bring to a boil, season lightly with salt and generously with crushed red pepper, and boil 2 minutes.  Pour in the vodka, lower the heat so the sauce is at a lively simmer (this actually does exist, instead of splattering sauce everywhere), and simmer until the pasta is ready.

Just before the pasta is done, fish the garlic cloves out of the sauce and pour in the cream.  Add the 2tb. of butter or olive oil, if using, and swirl the skillet to incorporate into the sauce.   Once pasta is done, drain (or fish out of the hot water and put directly into sauce) the pasta and add to the sauce.  Bring the sauce and pasta to a boil, stirring to coat the pasta with the sauce.  Check the seasoning, adding salt and red pepper if necessary.  Sprinkle the parsley over the pasta and boil until the sauce is reduced enough to cling to the pasta.

Remove the pot from the heat, sprinkle cheese over the pasta, and toss to mix.  Serve immediately, passing additional cheese if you like.