Guess the Star Ingredient in This Surprisingly Smoky Pasta Alla Vodka

February 23, 2017

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.

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

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.

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.

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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. Photo 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

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

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Top Comment:
“Can't wait to try it in this alla vodka recipe! ”
— Cookie

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.

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I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


ariane B. February 28, 2017
I've used it in risotto, roasted chicken breast with it under the skin and mixed with ricotta and spread it on crackers. So delicious. I'll have to try this recipe, still got heaps to use up
Rhonda35 February 26, 2017
I never heard of nduja before and will now look for it. I usually add a smoky note to dishes with either bacon or smoked paprika. Another "secret" smoky ingredient I use is a little bit of Scotch.
Alexandra S. February 26, 2017
So interesting! I love the scotch idea. bacon + smoked paprika is also genius. I was looking up alternatives and saw chorizo used as well.
Carol B. February 26, 2017
I have not used ndjuda, but have used Gochu Jang in a similar manner,with great results!
Alexandra S. February 26, 2017
Nice! I just made a baked tofu with a gochujang dressing. My first time using it — loved it!
Sumayya U. February 26, 2017
Smoked paprika maybe for a meat free yet smoky addition?
Alexandra S. February 26, 2017
Great idea!
hardlikearmour February 23, 2017
I LOVE nduja, especially Boccalone nduja
It's funky, spicy flavor is delicious enough to just eat as a smear on bread. It makes a great addition to pizza and has an affinity for potatoes, too.
Can't wait to try this pasta!
Alexandra S. February 23, 2017
Awesome—just placed an order! I'm very excited about all of the suggestions in this thread: eggs, potatoes, pizza. Cannot wait! I think 'nduja grilled cheese may have to be dinner.
EmilyC February 25, 2017
Ladies -- thanks to both of you, I just bought some nduja today at an Italian market near my house. Can't wait to try this pasta, and I love the idea of pairing it with potatoes, or maybe even blanched/sauteed broccoli rabe! Thanks for the inspiration! : )
Alexandra S. February 26, 2017
ooh: blanched/sautéed broccoli rabe, eggs, 'nduja sandwich? Sounds so good! So glad you found some.
PhoebeLapine February 23, 2017
Charlie is going to freak out over this. I need to get some 'nduja stat!
Alexandra S. February 23, 2017
Yes! Phoebe, it is SO good. I'm looking forward to an egg sandwich this weekend.
Cookie February 23, 2017
'Nduja is fantastic for breakfast with eggs, and goes great with breakfast-style potatoes. It breaks down quickly in the pan to a pleasant grainy consistency, releasing delicious chili oils in the process. Heat a bit of 'nduja in the pan just before scrambling your eggs, or crack eggs to be fried in 'nduja warmed with a dollop of olive oil. When the fried eggs are done, scrape the browned 'nduja and delicious red oils out of the pan onto the eggs and potatoes. Like any other salumi, it's also great at room temperature as an addition to any cheese / charcuterie plate. Can't wait to try it in this alla vodka recipe!
Alexandra S. February 23, 2017
Thank you, Cookie! I am so excited about the many future meals that 'nduja finds its way into, eggs in particular – going to try your scrambled egg technique! sounds so good. And you're right—I love the pleasant texture it adds as well.