The Tale of my Vodka Sauce with Pancetta (Italian for bacon)
Years ago I married a lovely Italian man whose father was an incredible Italian cook. He taught me to make many amazing dishes and the history behind them. I was forever showing up over at his house to find him in the kitchen cooking a traditional recipe with some amazing new twist and offering the recipe to me if I helped him chop something and listen to him blather on about his day. Sounds grand right? NOPE! The sneak always left an ingredient out. It never ruined the dish but it never had the same amount of POP that his did. This behavior is usually observed with the mother of the species has to share her son with another woman, the daughter-in-law. God forbid that said daughter-in-law outshines her in the kitchen. But then again, if you saw the sweaters that man wore.. And let’s face it, he is Italian! In the end what had started as a sharing of methodology in the kitchen became a challenge for me to figure out what ingredient it was. Sometimes after trying repeatedly, he would give in and let me scrawl out a copy from his secret recipe book for my own, but many times, especially with sauces, so I just made do. This specifically brilliant pink creamy sauce was one of said recipes.
Pancetta, Italian Bacon
One night we went over and he was chopping up tomatoes to simmer for a red sauce. Nonchalantly he asked if I would be so good as to chop the Pancetta up and gently whip the cream. (He thought he could distract me with this un-smoked Italian bacon). This was it; I was finally going to catch His Evilness in the act of sneaking the ingredient in. As he began his rant on the benefits of creating a red sauce from scratch, he turned around with practiced cunning to add in red pepper flakes I had seen him palm earlier. Finally, victory would be mine! Pasting an innocent smile on my face, I continued to nod and chop Pancetta, all the while planning my victory party.
Misinterpreting my moment of victory for confusion about why there were ingredients for both a white and red sauce. Evil Father-in Law mentioned trying out “nuova cucina”, which literally means ‘new cuisine”, apparently the latest thing in New York. My mind was discreetly filing another useless piece of kitchen trivia away when it should have been paying more attention. I was so wrapped up in finally being able to put a recipe to bed with the first try that I completely missed what I thought was a cocktail he was drinking being slowly stirred into the simmering sauce.
That night as we sipped our espressos after an incredible meal, it was all I could do to keep the excitement reigned in. Finally, I had him! As you can guess, I did not and for years I tried different deli’s, different creams, different olive oils etc, but nothing ever worked. It was still incredible and became a family favorite, but it never had the same zing as that figlio di puttana’s sauce did that night.
It was not until I was watching Emeril Lagasse cook his “famous” Vodka Sauce on the food network, the realization hit me of the ingredient the sneaky Sicilian bastardo left out. As Emeril described the much debated history of the sauce, how vodka drew out the rich flavor of the Pancetta and the bite of the red pepper. I could have screamed, but instead I ran to the store and gathered the ingredients. It took a few more tries but I finally developed my own version of what has become a new Italian classic, you can even find it on the shelf at the grocery store, but believe me when I tell you it is NOTHING like what you can make at home!
- 1 cup vodka (don’t buy the cheap stuff, there is a reason you cook with alcohol it makes the flavors pop! I use my homemade Pepper Vodka for an even bigger pop)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound prosciutto, chopped (you can get it from the deli like I did above if you plan on eating it a lot (it is great fried like our American version), but you can also buy it already chopped in the deli section of most markets)
- 2 large clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup of finely chopped yellow onion (yellow onion tend to hold their flavor even when cooked down into a sauce, remember we want it to POP!)
- 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
- 2 tablespoons of finely chopped sun-dried tomato (this is something I discovered when I was in my sun-dried tomato phase. I love the texture and the way a hint of sweetness is added.)
- salt and/or pepper to taste (I add this because depending on the ingredients at times I need to add more, less or none.)
- 4 cups of whole Roma tomatoes blended (Use canned, it makes life easier. Drain the juice and use San Marzano tomatoes if you can find them! If you like chunky sauce, use the chopped version or crush them with your hands)
- 1 to 1 1/2 cup heavy cream (If using whipping cream I would only use 1 cup but with regular heavy cream I usually use 1 1/2 cups. YES I think there is a difference!)
- 1/2 cup of fresh grated Parmesan cheese (don’t be lazy and buy Kraft© Parmesan, that isn’t real!! Grate it you lazy sod!)
- 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter (this is optional and only used if the sauce ends up being to acidic. This can happen if you use cheap tomatoes or ones that have been sitting on the shelf to long. Add one tablespoon at time till it loses the unwanted edge to the flavor.)
Carmelized Pancetta, onions and Garlic
Pour vodka in a glass bowl (or glass if you have no glass bowl but it needs to be glass people), add the red pepper flakes and set aside for at least an hour while you prepare everything else.
- Grate the Parmesan with a hard cheese grater and set aside (you can grate more to use for garnish the dish later)
- Chop or dice Pancetta (this really is your preference. I personally like to have it the same consistency as I chop my corn beef for hash as you can see from the picture)
- add olive oil to a mid sized sauce pan over medium heat. When heated add Pancetta and stir. Saute the bacon down then and add the onions and garlic stirring till the onions JUST begin to caramelize (see the photo)
- Add 1 tablespoon of parsley and the sun-dried tomato. Continue sauteing till most of the grease is cooked off (no more than 5 more minutes you do not want the onions completely soggy and browned).
- Turn the heat down to medium-low, adding the vodka mixture. Simmer for 10 minutes
- Add your tomatoes, the rest of your parsley, basil and 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese. Stir after each ingredient. Continue to stir for the first five minutes and every five minutes after that for 15 more minutes. (you can opt to cook this longer if the sauce is not cooking down, but do not over cook or the flavor will begin to become acidic, this is when you start adding butter. So taste after 15 minutes and then no more then 10 more minutes in my most humble and awesome opinion)
- While you are cooking and stirring the sauce gently whip the creme (you want it to start thicken but not whipped in the thickness of the whipped creme you put on that pumpkin pie last month. AND YES you can GENTLY whip things.. be playful, gentle and make sure you give it good aftercare when you are done *weg*)
- Serve over chicken, with penne (traditional), or like I did with linguini noodles! (and yes we had run out of REAL parmesan and I had to use Kraft© so SHUT IT! and EAT!)