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Guess the Star Ingredient in This Surprisingly Smoky Pasta Alla Vodka

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When I read the recipe for smoky garganelli alla vodka in Colu Henry’s Back Pocket Pasta two things struck me:

  1. The descriptor “smoky,” which I’ve never associated with alla vodka preparations.

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  2. The total cooking time, which promised to be about 20 minutes, a fraction of the time I always accepted devoting to the dish.  

Smoky Pasta alla Vodka
Smoky Pasta alla Vodka

The smokiness, I learned, would come from the addition of ‘nduja, not long ago a “spotlight” ingredient highlighted in food magazines and columns, now readily available in high-end markets and from many sources online.

‘Nduja is made from pork and Calabrian chilies, looks like finely puréed sundried tomatoes, and is often described as a spicy spreadable prosciutto or salami, which never sounded very appealing to me. But with pantry cooking being February’s name of the game and the hope of pasta alla vodka becoming a weeknight staple, the time had come to give it a go.

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Anchovies or 'nduja? (Kidding: It's the latter.)
Anchovies or 'nduja? (Kidding: It's the latter.) Photo by Alexandra Stafford

After sweating a chopped onion and a few cloves of garlic, into the skillet went the ‘nduja, which quickly broke down, the pâté-like purée dissolving like anchovies melting in hot oil. As fiery smells wafted from the pan, in went the vodka, followed by the crushed tomatoes, and, later, the heavy cream.

The dish came together as quickly as promised and in the end tasted complex—sweet, sharp and rich like classic pasta alla vodka with the added dimension of heat and smoke. There are lots of big-flavor ingredients—vodka, cream, Parmigiano Reggiano—working together in this dish, but the ‘nduja, which is smoked and aged for one to two years, no doubt pulled the most weight, lending such depth of flavor in such a short period of time.

Cream first, cheese last. Photos by Alexandra Stafford

A few tips:

  • What, if anything, can replace the ‘nduja? Colu notes for a meat-free dish, you can simply omit it and use a pinch of red pepper flakes in its place, though you’ll lose the smoky element.  

  • Crushed tomatoes, as the recipe suggests, as opposed to whole peeled tomatoes, makes this come together more easily, but if you prefer to use whole, peeled tomatoes, go ahead. I like to snip them with scissors in the pan to help them break down.

  • The parsley and oregano will add a spot of color and a touch of freshness, but the pasta is delicious without them, so don’t feel the need to rush to the store if you don’t have them.  

Photo by Alexandra Stafford
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Smoky Pasta alla Vodka

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Serves 4
  • Kosher salt
  • 3/4 pound pasta
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 ounces 'nduja, optional (see notes)
  • 3/4 cup vodka
  • 28 ounces can crushed San Marzano tomatoes (or whole, see notes)
  • Fresh cracked pepper
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup grate Parmigiano Reggiano or Grano Padano, plus more for serving
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped oregano (see notes)
  • 2 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley (see notes)
Go to Recipe

Have you cooked with 'nduja? Tell us what you think about it in the comments!

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.