Anna Garten's upgrade to Penne Alla Vodka is almost as good as a trip to Italy

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Penne alla Vodka is one of those dishes that makes almost no sense. How do a handful of simple ingredients turn into a sauce with such wonderful flavor? While I file this classic dish in the pizza-like category that even a bad version tastes fine, Anna Garten's rendition stands out for its rich, intense flavor.

While Anna's recipe includes all the ingredients you'd expect in a vodka sauce, her recipe may surprise you. At first glance, I was a bit confused by his style. Vodka sauces usually come together quickly, but the cooking time listed in this recipe was over two hours. I should have known better than to doubt Anna for a second. The secret to this sauce is a good long roast in the oven.

A simple technique makes the perfect Penne alla Vodka.

What excites me most about this recipe is that it borrows a technique from one of my favorite Anna Garten dishes, her Roasted Tomato Soup. Just like in a soup recipe, roasting the sauce creates a depth of flavor that can't be created on the stove, making the tomatoes almost candy-like.

Anna credits one of her favorite diners in the Hamptons, Nick & Tony, for this recipe. If you describe my lifelong goal of eating with Anna, making this dreamy vodka sauce at home is the next best thing.

Just Recipes / Alison Beckel


How to make Ina Garten's Penne Alla Vodka

First, fry the yellow onion in good olive oil until translucent. Then add garlic, crushed red pepper, and dried oregano to the party to infuse the flavors. Next, pour in the vodka. This is where a lot of the magic happens.

Vodka is a great vehicle for flavor diffusion. Acting like the conductor of a symphony, the vodka brings out all the best flavors in the sauce, while reducing the volume on the undesirables, like the acidity from the tomatoes. It also helps absorb the sauce once you stir in the cream, keeping it silky instead of curdled and grainy.

In a pinch, you can substitute white wine or any other clear alcohol, but vodka's neutral flavor works best in this dish. After the alcohol cooks off, you won't get any lingering flavor from the alcohol, which can muddy the final sauce.

Once the vodka has lost its alcoholic aroma, it's time to add the tomatoes. Anna orders whole peeled tomatoes (two 28-ounce cans to be exact), but she first peels them and then crushes them by hand. You can save the tomato juice to thin the sauce when finishing the dish, or use it for another recipe like minestrone soup.

Once the tomatoes are on the board, season the sauce well with salt and pepper.

Here's where the real magic happens: cover the pan, and slide it into the oven for a nice long roast of about an hour and a half. During this time, the flavor and sweetness of the tomatoes become concentrated, and the sauce thickens dramatically.

When the tomatoes are cooked, blend the sauce until smooth and return it to the pot where you will add the heavy cream to balance the flavor and richness. It transforms the brick-red sauce into the irresistible pink hue of classic Penne-style vodka.

At this point, toss the sauce in the pan to finish cooking al dente, which infuses each noodle with the flavor you've created in the oven. Finally, sprinkle Parmesan into the sauce to round out the dish. The sharp cheese melts into the sauce, giving it a rich umami note. Although this method adds a little extra time, the proof is in the pen. It's worth making a double batch here so you can save half to stock your freezer. Now that's my kind of meal prep!

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