Chicken Dinners: Chicken and Penne in Vodka Cream Sauce

Homemade Chicken and Penne Vodka Cream Sauce

"We made this dish for my parents' wedding anniversary dinner, to tremendous success. (Recipe here.) Just when I thought the sauce couldn't get any better, we added the cream - and boy were we glad we did. Our only tweak: stir in a handful of spinach right before serving for a splash of color. Make this tonight." Jessica Leibowitz, Videographer

[Photograph: Yvonne Ruperti]

Yvonne Ruperti

I'm not a seasonal eater at all. I'll eat anything, any time of year. But when it's freezing outside, a meal of pasta in a creamy sauce does go down especially easy (and rapidly). There is not one creamy pasta that I'll ever refuse, including pasta in vodka cream sauce.

The sauce's mild color may fool you into thinking it's a vapid sauce, but it's not. It's a vibrant mix of sautéed garlic, shallots (or onions), tomatoes, and vodka, tempered with cream and blended until satiny smooth (it doesn't have to be blended, but I like how the silky sauce clings onto the pasta). This Italian-American sauce is usually tossed with penne, but I'd be happy to mix it with any shape that's got a lot of nooks and crannies (wagonwheels would be killer). Vodka sauce is mostly served with the pasta and no other adornment, but I thought I'd make a heartier meal of it by stirring in slices of boneless chicken breast.

This is an extremely simple pasta sauce to prepare, making it ideal for a hearty weeknight dinner. For inspiration for my sauce, I looked to fellow Serious Eats contributor, Joshua Bousel, and his version of Vodka Cream Sauce. According to Joshua, the reason for the unusual ingredient of vodka in this sauce is that "the vodka brings out flavors in the tomatoes that are alcohol soluble." Sounds good to me.

I figured the best way to get the chicken in there was to gently cook it in the completed sauce. I thinly sliced boneless chicken breast against the grain so that it would cook quickly and stay tender. Probably the best part about this dish is that it gives me a good excuse to whip up a cheesy garlic bread drenched in butter.