Penne alla Vodka has always been a favorite indulgence of mine- a simple combo of tender penne tossed into a creamy tomato sauce may sound rudimentary, but it’s heavenly! If you follow my recipes regularly, you’ll know that I like to experiment with classic dishes, sneaking in added flavor, substance, and nutrients when I can. That’s exactly what happened here! I swapped out penne for heftier rigatoni, tossed in a few links of chicken sausage for added protein, and wilted in some kale to add green goodness to a dish that I find even more appealing than the classic pasta muse I was originally inspired by. Because I wanted to make this ahead during my toddlers’ nap time, I turned the whole thing into a pasta bake (totally optional but highly recommended- just leave out all the cheese and the baking part if you want to serve this straight out of the pot). My whole family was very pleased with the result! Vodka sauce may sound like a boozy delicacy, but this recipe calls for a mere quarter cup and the alcohol evaporates away during the deglazing process. The liquor isn’t meant to add vodka flavor- rather, it serves to deglaze the pan and release more “tomatoeyness” from the tomatoes. So no- alla Vodka sauce won’t give you or your kids a buzz, but this scrumptious pasta al forno has the power to conjure the same happy warm-and-fuzzies that a strong cocktail would! No after dinner Uber required!
prep time: 15 min. cook time: ~1 hr. serves: 6-8
1 lb rigatoni pasta, or other short tubular pasta with ridges
extra virgin olive oil
12 oz mild or spicy smoked chicken sausage links (the kind that are full cooked and in casings), diced
1 yellow onion, diced
1 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup vodka
1 tbsp tomato paste
1-28 oz can whole tomatoes with juice, lightly crushed by hand
1/2 cup half and half
2 cups chopped kale
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 cup shredded fontina
1 cup thinly sliced and torn fresh mozzarella
Preheat the oven to 375° and bring a large pot of liberally salted water to a boil. Add the rigatoni and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta in a colander and set aside.
Make the sauce by heating 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy pot. Add the chicken sausage and sauté until it’s beginning to brown and render some fat. Remove the browned sausage to a plate with a slotted spoon.
Add another tbsp of oil the pot and the yellow onion. Sauté 3-5 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and oregano and stir to cook 1 more minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook 2 minutes more. Pour in the vodka and scrape up anything stuck to the bottom of the pan. Let the vodka reduce almost completely then add the tomatoes with their juice, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Stir to combine and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and let the sauce simmer 15 minutes until the flavors have melded.
After 15 minutes, pour in the half and half and stir in the kale. Let the sauce cook another 5 minutes or so, until it has thickened and the kale has wilted. Check for seasoning and remove the sauce from the heat.
Off the heat, add the rigatoni, sausage, and halved amounts of each cheese (so 1/4 cup Parmesan, 1/2 cup fontina, and 1/2 cup mozzarella) to the sauce in the pot and give everything a big stir to combine. Transfer the mixture to a large oiled baking dish and smooth it out to lay in an even layer. Top it with the remaining cheese. Bake the pasta uncovered for 20-30 minutes, until the cheese on top is brown and the sauce bubbles.