Thursday, May 30, 2013

Penne Alla Vodka

Penne Alla Vodka:

You Won't Get Drunk, Don't Worry

Honestly, the thought of pouring vodka over noodles has always sounded kinda gross. Okay, okay, I know you don't actually pour it over the noodles. And I know you're supposed to cook the sauce first. I also know the alcohol "cooks off" but I still always thought there would be a freaky vodka-like grossness to the remaining dish. As much as I know inside that I "know" about cooking, I also realize I don't know the first thing about cooking. That's what is so cool about it: There is ALWAYS something new to learn. Always.

It reminds me of the old critically acclaimed film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (circa 1989) where they quoted Socrates. Funny how you learn cool stuff through stupid stuff. Or am I just stupid? Jury's out on that one. Anywho, the quote is as follows: "The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing". And if you KNOW that, you will learn everything you possibly can.

So a few years back, we were in an a local Italian restaurant for dinner before heading out to a blues show we had tickets for. My wife ordered the pasta with vodka sauce. I figured I could order my choice off the menu and then try her dish to see if I liked it. If I did great but if I didn't, I could say "Haha, mines is good, yours is gross". Then I could eat mine slowly with my eyes shut, all the while going "Mmmm, this is so tasty. Bet you wish you ordered this. What did you get again? Oh yeah vodka sauce. Ewww. Bet it's gross." 

I wouldn't have really done that. 

But as it turns out, the dish was actually very good. In fact, I kinda loved it. And bless her heart because she didn't close her eyes and tell me how much better hers was than mine. Note to self: Grow up Justin.

Since then, I've grown to love the dish. I've had it on several occasions since and thought it was about time I figured this thing out. My findings were rather cool. This dish is actually super easy to make and the results are equally as good. 

My wife (for the purposes of this blog, let's just call her Kris, mostly because at birth, her parents named her Kris) has a huge problem with me when we entertain. I have this uncontrollable urge to make the best food ever for my guests. Unreasonable?  No. However, the downfall to it is that I tend to spend too much time in the kitchen cooking for my guests instead of hanging out with them on the patio or in the pool like a good host should. Amateur? Probably. But I'm a perfectionist and would rather have them enjoy my "artistic capabilities" rather than my mediocre company. The fact is, I run my dinner parties like a restaurant. She's front of the house, I'm back of the house. She the hostess, I'm the chef.  But as usual, she's right. I should make stuff like Penne Alla Vodka that's quick and delicious and call it good.

That being said, this is perfect for guests because it doesn't require much cook time or prep. A small amount of mise en place is usually in order but, again, this one doesn't require much.

This recipe was inspired by The Pioneer Woman's version of this dish. 

Penne Alla Vodka


  • 1 pound box of penne pasta
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup vodka
  • One 14 oz can of tomato puree (see hint below)
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
  • 2-3 Tbsp basil, cut chiffonade
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese 


1. Cook pasta per box directions. Do not overcook making sure to leave pasta al dente. Once done, reserve one cup of the cooking water then drain the noodles. 

2. Heat butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add garlic and shallots and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. 

3. Add vodka to skillet and cook to reduce for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently.

4. Add tomato puree and mix until completely combined. Then reduce heat to low.

5. Add the cream and stir to combine.

6. Then stir in the red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, and basil.

7. Finally, add the noodles and Parmesan and toss to combine all. 

Serves 4

Hint: The first two ingredients listed on most tomato puree cans are: Tomato paste, water.
If you can't find the tomato puree, buy a 14 oz can of tomato paste and add water to it until you reach a consistency somewhere between tomato paste and tomato sauce. The plus side to this? Tomato paste is half the cost of puree. Why would a product that's twice as concentrated cost half the price of the diluted version? Somebody is seeing someone coming from a mile away. Shhhh. Save yourself some money and stick it to the man! 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Chinese Chow Mein: Mongolian BBQ Style

Chinese Chow Mein:

Mongolian BBQ Style

Back in my high school years, there was a Mongolian BBQ place smack dab in the middle of my old stomping grounds. It was place me and my buddies would go to frequently. It was a little hole in the wall a few blocks away from the shopping mall. If you didn't know it was there, you'd never know it was there. And the food was amazing. 

If you've never been to one of these places, let me paint you a picture. You go in and get a bowl. There is "buffet" of thinly sliced and frozen raw meats such as chicken, beef and lamb (I wasn't a vegetarian back then). Next to that, there's a choice a few kinds of chow mein noodles. Usually one thick noodle, think udon, and one thinner, think spaghetti. After that is an array of fresh veggies and sauces that you can choose from. You place what you  like from the buffet in your bowl and top it with a sauce or a combination of different sauces. Finally, you take your bowl of goodness to the grill cook. The cook dumps the bowl onto a large round grill and stir fries your concoction into sheer bliss.   

Some of these place are "all you can eat". Some, you only get one pass at the buffet. The place we went to was a "one pass" place. Now this is where it gets interesting. Our goal was always to get the biggest bang for our buck. The fact is, you can loosely pack some veggies and noodles in your bowl but the problem with that is by the time the guy grills the contents of your bowl, the veggies have reduced by half in size and what you thought your had in your bowl was nothing more than "amuse bouche". 

So here are me and my buddies in line at the buffet and after each addition to our bowls, we would put the bowl on the counter and get on top of it with our full body weight in order to pack it down as much as possible. By the time we got to the end of the line, there'd be a solid four pounds of everything in the bowl. And I mean solid. It was like a circular brick. All for $6 bucks? Sold!

Soon thereafter, school had let out for good, that little joint closed and life went on. I still see those little Mongolian places around town but somewhere, over the years, there was a disconnect. I don't know what it was but I haven't been in one of those places in 20+ years. Why? I can't figure it out. I loved that little place from back in the day. 

Fast forward to a month ago. I was going out to lunch with a friend and he suggested a Mongolian BBQ nearby. I thought why the heck not? I haven't had that kinda grub in ages. So we walk in the place. And, as I've just said, it's been a long time so I'm not sure if the Mongolian BBQ etiquette has changed over the last 20 years. Maybe it's acceptable for an 18 year old to do this sort of "packing of the bowl" (that's not a metaphor). But is it acceptable for a man in his 40's to do this sort of thing? Well, let me tell you friends and neighbors, that uncertainty was quickly squashed when I looked back at my buddy. His bowl was on the counter and he was actually giggling as he laid his full body weight on top of it, packing it down into the form of a circular brick..............It's such a relief to know some things never change. 

An hour later, I was there an a near catatonic state, belly over packed, wondering what the hell happened to last 20 years of my life. Where did I go wrong? What bad choices did I make that led to this Mongolian absence in my life? I may never know but it matters not. It's time to move forward in a world where I can jam my bowl and giggle all the while in the knowledge that it doesn't matter how old or how young you are, it's okay to employ your full body weight when creating your Mongolian masterpiece. Etiquette by damned!!

This recipe is adapted from a recipe I found on Rasa Malaysia. It's for a Mongolian beef recipe so it's actually quite different than what I have here. Basically, I took the "sauce" portion of the recipe and applied it to this dish. 

Keep in mind that this is a stir fry. You can add pretty much any veggie you like to your dish. The veggies I have listed below under "The Rest" are based on my personal preference. If you want to omit something and add something else, go for it. And do yourself a favor, go to a Mongolian BBQ place, giggle, pack a bowl, and be happy. 

Mongolian BBQ Style Chow Mein


Stir Fry Sauce:
  • 2 teaspoons vegetarian oyster sauce (find it at an Asian grocery store)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce (don't skip this)
  • 3 dashes of white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon Maggi seasoning
  • 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic 
The Rest: 
  • 3 ounces of dried chow mein noodles
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon chili oil
  • 2 cups cabbage, julienned
  • 1 cup of broccoli florets
  • 1/2 cup onion, julienned
  • 1/2 cup carrot, small julienne (think matchstick) 
  • 2 cups spinach, stemmed
  • 3/4 cup bean spouts
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, stemmed and chopped 
  • 1 serrano pepper, thinly sliced into rings 
  • 1/2 cup green onions, sliced on a bias


To make the sauce:

1. Combine all sauce ingredients in a bowl. Mix until sugar is dissolved. I usually make this the night before and just let it sit in the fridge although this isn't required. I just find that sugar is usually completely dissolved when I do this.   

For the rest:

1. Cook you noodles per the package directions. Once done, drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside.

2. Add the peanut, sesame and chili oils to a wok and heat on high. When the oil has almost begun to smoke, add the cabbage, broccoli, and onion. Fry, stirring constantly for about a minute. 

3. Add the spinach, bean sprouts, cilantro, and serrano pepper. Continue to stir fry for about 30 seconds.

4. Add the sauce to the wok and stir fry for an additional 30 seconds. 

5. Add the noodles and toss. Continue to stir fry for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly . 

6. Remove chow mein from heat and toss with the green onions. Place in a serving bowl and serve immediately.    

Serves 2: if served as a main course
Serves 4: if served as a side