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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Happy Accidents: Pasta with Tomato-Vermouth Sauce

Fusilli with Vodka Vermouth Sauce

Happy Accidents:  Pasta with Tomato-Vodka Vermouth Sauce
by Victoria Challancin

If you trace the history of any cook you would surely find it dotted with countless accidents, changes, substitutions, and tweaks, most of which resulted in successful dishes.  We cooks see interesting food in books and magazines, taste inspired dishes in restaurants, imagine all sorts of combinations while day-dreaming about food, and then proceed to replicate or interpret recipes in our own way.  This is how we learn to be good cooks.  Occasionally, an accidental substitution ends up being a happy surprise.  This is the story of just that.

Many of you readers know that I live in Mexico and regularly teach international cooking to Mexican cooks who work for mainly foreigners looking to expand the repertoire of what their cooks, who are already more than proficient in preparing the cuisine of Mexico, can provide.  Part of what I do is to educate the cooks' palates to new ingredients, new ideas, new taste sensations.  Another thing I try to do is to eliminate the fear of making mistakes, fear of experimentation, fear of failure.  Mistakes, I tell them, should be jumping off places, areas to explore and expand what is possible in the kitchen.  This recipe is a perfect example of this.

Preparing a mise en place of ingredients, carefully measured and laid out in size-appropriate receptacles, is a part of my class. That way, we can see what a teaspoon proportion looks like, understand the differences in teaspoons and tablespoons, use fractions to measure cups, and all the things that the average American cook takes for granted.  Measuring spoons and cups are often new to the Mexican cooks in my class, having learned to cook from their own mothers and grandmothers, without bothering with such, using instinct to guide them.  Of course learning to use instinct is a great way to approach cooking, if you are confident enough to do it.  The cooks in these classes are confident with la cocina Mexicana, but usually not with foreign fare. So we measure.  

On the particular day we were scheduled to make a Tomato-Vodka Sauce for pasta (always a winner and easy too!), we also were preparing a salad with a creamy vinaigrette to accompany it.  The scene was set.  The mise en place in place for each recipe.  We were ready to go.   While making the salad dressing together as a group,  I turned away to tend to deal with something or other, and turned back to find that one of the cooks had poured the measured vodka for the pasta sauce into the mixture for the vinaigrette.  We laughed and I tried to help her get over her embarrassment by saying this is how we learn, both in the kitchen and in life:  we make mistakes, correct them if we can, and move on.

Well, there seemed to be no rescue for the ruined salad dressing, so we started afresh with it.  But when we moved on to the pasta sauce, I found I didn't have enough vodka left to even make it.  What to do?  I substituted dry vermouth instead!  The flavor of the vermouth came through, not as subtle as the vodka but equally good.  And frankly, I was pleased to find yet another way to use vermouth.  I'm not much of a drinker of hard liquor, but I do love aperitifs, and vermouth (red, white, sweet, dry) is probably my favorite.  A happy recipe was born.

Have you ever given birth to a new and exciting recipe due to a happy accident?  I smiled with understanding and admiration when I read this week one such account on the delightful blog called Foodalogue ( when a rescue was needed for some bland swordfish sausage.  Necessity as the mother of invention...yet again.

Here is the recipe I used from Foodpickle at

Penne alla Vodka or Vermouth
(Recipe from Foodpickle at added by Due Spaghetti)

1 lb. package of penne or pennette (I used fusilli)
1 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes (I used chopped canned tomatoes0
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 of a medium onion
6 ounces pancetta (I used bacon)
1/2 cup panna da cucina, crema mexicana, creme fraiche or heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup vodka (I used dry vermouth)
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Freshly grated Parmesan
Optional garnish:  chopped parsley  (my addition, for color) 

Cut the onion into large pieces that can be removed once sautéed.  Dice the pancetta into small

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.

Add the onion and pancetta and sauté until the onions are translucent and the pancetta is crispy.

Place the food mill on top of the saucepan and pass the tomatoes and their sauce through it,
producing a smooth tomato sauce.

Add the vodka (or vermouth!), brandy, crushed red pepper and salt.  Allow to simmer for 45 minutes.

Remove from heat,and add the sour cream and stir well.

In the meantime, bring a pot of water to boil.  Add a handful of salt (possibly coarse salt0 to the
water, and add the pasta.

Cook to al dente according to the time on the package.  Drain the pasta, return it to the pot, and
pour the sauce over it.  Serve immediately topped with grated Parmesan and chopped parsley,
if using.


Fusilli with Tomato-Vermouth Sauce

©2011 Victoria Challancin unless otherwise indicated.
All Rights Reserved. 


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What a fantastically delicious accident Victoria! :D

Lynne Daley said...

Delicious looking pasta, no accident there! I don't suppose the vodka would taste very good in a salad dressing, but in something else-maybe? Beautiful photo of not only the pasta, but the jar of flowers-lovely colors!

FOODalogue said...

That's what I love about cooking...those happy accidents!

It's interesting to read that part of your teaching is acquainting students with measurements. I'm more of a 'pinch of this' type cook but understand the importance when you are learning, especially a new cuisine.

Lucas said...

I had an accident at the grocery store, where what I thought was two cans of white beans, once home, became a tin of chickpeas and a tin of white beans. The dish still worked, and now I choose to make it that way.

And I'm also a fan of the slightly-boozy pasta.