Resurrect a 1980s pasta star

Julie Falsetti

Cauliflower “rice,” kale chips, coconut water, chia seeds, candy sprinkles cake — all of these foods have one thing in common: They were major players in the food trends of the past few years.

Just like clothing, food goes in and out of fashion. Ask anyone of a certain age, and they can probably produce a fondue pot from the depths of their garage or basement. It was the de rigueur wedding gift of the ’70s. Sadly, fondue, a cheese epicure’s delight, has gone the way of scrunchies and acid-washed jeans.

This week I’d like to resurrect a dish that was a star on Italian restaurant menus in the mid-80s.

The origins of penne alla vodka are murky. Some say it was invented by an American, while others claim it was foisted on Italian chefs by vodka distillers as a way to get more Italians to consume vodka. Whatever its provenance, it quickly gained popularity.

Although vodka seems like an incongruous ingredient to pair with tomatoes, it actually heightens their flavor. The addition of cream serves to mellow out the dish, and a dash of dried red pepper gives it a zing. With its bold flavors, penne alla vodka is a comforting cold-weather dish with hints of the warm weather to come.

If vodka isn’t a part of your liquor cabinet, the liquor store sells miniature bottles that are not quite a quarter cup but sufficient for the recipe. For a dish that will outshine anything you can get in a restaurant, spring for a can of San Marzano tomatoes.

Penne Alla Vodka

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and chopped (save juices)

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (depending on how much heat you want)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 pound penne

1/4 cup vodka

2 tablespoons butter

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Place a large saute pan over medium heat, and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic. Saute until the onion is soft and beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, crushed red pepper and salt. Simmer covered for 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the heavy cream and remove from heat.

Add the penne to boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain pasta and return to cooking pot. Add vodka and butter. Gently mix the penne until the butter is melted.

Add the tomato mixture, and mix until the pasta is coated. Serve sprinkled with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section.