A vodka party. In reality, a dinner party featuring vodka as the main ingredient. Guests tacked on one by one until we were fifteen, crammed into that little student kitchen. With the lights off and the table covered in candles it even erred on the sophisticated. But of course someone had a fluffy pseudo-Russian hat that was dutifully passed around for the obligatory (slightly racist) photos. It had long soft tassels that doubled perfectly as bushy Stalinesque moustaches.
More than a year ago. Now that I think about it, it represented a knife edge equilibrium between young and old, student and grown-up. Surrounded by childhood and university friends, we were on the other side of the final exams that were looming. No time to imagine the blank calm and the whole colourful palette of decisions that awaited. So we balanced mature and silly, pretentious and childish. We drank gold-flecked vodka hauled back from far-away travels in search of Wagner. We ate homemade raspberry vodka jelly and that soft comforting supermarket icecream beloved of children’s birthday parties. Responsibilities and possibilities threatened, but distantly. Instead we stabbed at tubes of penne coated with sweet collapsed tomatoes and cream. Tried to detect the vodka, decided that it was delicious either way. Four large saucepans of pasta were happily polished off before we wobbled home.
A year later I am out in the real world. With a job. With a crazy amount of options. Those old friends are now scattered far and wide, making their own decisions, affecting people’s lives. And when that all seems a little too much, this same pasta is a comfort and a distraction. Methodically chop shallots, fry them in olive oil. Add a generous slug of leftover alcohol from an enthusiastic housewarming. Tip in an emergency tin of tomatoes. Answer the door, turn off the heat and forget about it while you drink more wine and tell stories. Later, drunker, finish up this perfect tomato sauce. It stands up a dinner party or a quick supper for two. (Requires candles for the full effect.) Rich but subtle, sweet and sharp – a happy background to good company.
Pasta alla vodka
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic
2 shallots or 1/2 onion
250ml white wine or vodka
400g (1 tin) good quality tinned tomatoes
2 tbsp roughly chopped sundried tomatoes
2 tbsp chopped capers
100ml single cream
salt and pepper
500g penne or fusilli pasta
In a large saucepan or deep frying pan, gently fry the clove of garlic whole and the chopped shallots in the olive oil. When the shallots are starting to brown, add the cup of vodka/wine and let it sizzle. Reduce the liquid by half – cook off some of the alcohol! – before adding the tinned tomatoes and chopped sundried tomatoes. Let the sauce simmer for 10 minutes or so until it is thick and sweet.
Tip the pasta into a large pan of salted boiling water. Meanwhile stir the capers and cream into the tomato sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Leave it on a low heat while the pasta cooks.
Drain the pasta (but not too vigorously – you don’t want it too dry) then toss with the sauce to coat thoroughly. Add parmesan if you think it needs it. Serve with more vodka.