Updated: Aug 17, 2021
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 where 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 smoked Italian chicken sausage (the kind that are fully cooked and in casings- sweet or hot, or a mix), cut into half moons
1 yellow onion, diced
1 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup vodka
1 tbsp tomato paste
1-28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2-1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 cup half and half
4 cups chopped kale
1 cup 1” cubed fontina cheese
1 cup 1” cubed mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano
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, 2-1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp black pepper (or to taste). Stir to combine and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and let the sauce simmer on low for 10 minutes until the flavors have melded.
After 10 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 the cubed fontina and mozzarella to the sauce in the pot and give everything a big stir to evenly coat. Transfer the mixture to a large oiled baking dish and smooth it out to spread in an even layer. Top it with the grated parm. Cover the dish with foil and place on a middle rack in the oven to bake 20 minutes. Uncover the dish and bake another 15 minutes, or until hot and bubbly and browned on top, moving the dish to an upper rack to brown the top more if needed. Let stand 10 minutes before serving hot.