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Upgrade your weeknight pasta in 20 minutes with this easy recipe for penne alla vodka

For seasoned cooks and kitchen novices, cookbook author and nutritionist Robin Miller takes it back to basics with great, family-friendly recipes worth making over and over again.

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"Pasta is always the same, yet always different," James Beard once famously said. "It has a comforting familiarity with its pale golden color and chewy, wheaten taste." And while comforting familiarity is something to be cherished, boredom at dinnertime is not.

Let’s face it, we’ve all stared at a box of pasta and thought, “How can I get creative with this?”

On a busy night, a fresh batch of pasta tossed with our favorite jar of sauce seems like the best option, especially when time is of the essence and the cupboard is bare. But a little creativity, and just a few more ingredients, can elevate pasta to new heights.

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What is penne pasta?

The name “penne” comes from the Italian word for pen (quill) because the angled ends of the pasta resemble the tip of a quill pen. Penne can be found smooth and ridged and is a fantastic addition to a variety of dishes.

Ridged (rigate) penne can be used with virtually any sauce – thick or thin – and the ridges help soak up every last drop and is study enough to support thick, chunky sauces. The hollow tubes also fill up with saucy deliciousness.

Smooth penne (lisce) doesn’t soak up quite as much sauce, but is equally fabulous. I like to reserve smooth penne for soups, casseroles and served as a side dish with stew.

Penne, and most other pasta shapes, are made with durum wheat flour, a hardy grain that creates a sturdy noodle that's very forgiving, even if you can’t get to the pot right when the timer goes off.

Penne remains chewy and resilient after cooking, whereas pastas made with softer wheats will fall apart when overcooked. Since penne holds its shape sauced and un-sauced, it’s great fun for little ones who often eat with their hands.

Recipe: Penne in easy pink vodka sauce

One of my favorite ways to serve penne is in this easy pink vodka sauce. Tender tubes of penne are tossed in a velvety, tomato cream sauce that’s spiked with vodka and scented with onion and garlic and topped with a showering of parmesan cheese and fresh basil. It's a dish that can be made with items that are likely already in your pantry and it only takes about 20 minutes.

Why add the vodka to the sauce? Vodka enhances the flavor of tomatoes by pulling out and concentrating their inherent sweetness. Plus, the alcohol adds a subtle bite of its own, which is the perfect contrast for the sweet cream in the sauce.

Can you leave the vodka out? Yes! Simply replace the vodka with an equal amount of vegetable broth, chicken broth or reserved pasta cooking water.

Makes: 4 Servings


  • 1 pound penne, or other pasta shape of choice
  • 2 cups tomato sauce or puréed tomatoes
  • ¼ cup vodka or ¼ cup reserved pasta cooking water (see note above)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup heavy or whipping cream
  • Grated parmesan cheese, for serving
  • Chopped fresh basil, for serving


  1. Cook pasta according to the package directions. Drain, reserving ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water (if you’re not using vodka). Set aside and cover with foil to keep warm.
  2. In a large saucepan or high-sided skillet, combine the tomato sauce, vodka, olive oil, dried basil, dried oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.
  3. Set the pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
  4. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the cream. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then fold in the cooked pasta and cook for 1 minute to heat through.
  5. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Top with parmesan cheese and fresh basil and serve with extra parmesan cheese on the side.

What can you make with a pound of penne pasta?

Think of penne as a blank canvas and build your masterpiece around it. Even adding one strategic ingredient from your pantry can completely transform that chewy, wheaten noodle into a mind-blowing dish. Roasted red peppers, capers, olives, pesto and even balsamic vinegar can turn everyday pasta into a gourmet meal.

Here are a few ideas to get your creative pasta ideas flowing:

  • Penne with Spicy Sausage – create a meat sauce with sweet or spicy sausage
  • Penne Arrabiata – add spicy sauce and crushed red pepper flakes
  • Seafood Penne – add shrimp, clams, and canned tomatoes
  • Penne Pie – like spaghetti pie, but much easier to eat
  • Penne Primavera – add a variety of vegetables
  • Penne Florentine – toss the pasta with creamed spinach
  • Penne Alfredo with Eggs and Bacon – add store bought Alfredo sauce and add over-easy eggs and bacon
  • Penne Mac N Cheese – swap in penne for elbow macaroni
  • Penne with Tomatoes, Tuna, and Capers – add canned/pouch tuna, cherry tomatoes, and capers
  • Penne with Broccoli and Garlic – tossed with olive oil
  • Cacio e pepe Penne – like the classic spaghetti dish made with toasted black pepper
  • Penne with Olive Tapenade – add store-bought olive tapenade
  • Caprese Penne - add fresh mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes; drizzle with balsamic glaze
  • Thai Penne with Chicken and Creamy Peanut Sauce – add store-bought peanut sauce
  • Penne with Mushrooms and Thyme – add sautéed mushrooms and thyme
  • Pesto Penne – add store-bought basil pesto
  • Penne Jambalaya – add Cajun seasoning, shrimp, and andouille sausage
  • Chicken Caesar Penne – add cooked chicken, Caesar dressing, and crushed croutons; serve over Romaine lettuce if desired