Why you should add a splash of vodka to your pasta sauce

Pasta with tomato vodka sauce, charred chilli and burrata cheese.
Pasta with tomato vodka sauce, charred chilli and burrata cheese.  Photo: Katrina Meynink

As the weather cools, there is nothing more enticing than a hearty bowl of pasta. Try one of these  pastas midweek or on a lazy Sunday and enjoy the fug of contentment as it settles in the belly and in the soul in that way that only a big bowl of hot carbs can.

Pasta with tomato vodka sauce, chilli and burrata

There have been many claims to the invention of the more traditional parent to this number, penne alla vodka, but whatever its origins, the subtle kick of vodka lifts the most simple of tomato sauce and pasta combinations. Skip the roasted chillies for five-minute midweek saviour cooking at its finest.

INGREDIENTS

2 tsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

200ml tomato passata

salt and pepper to season

10-12 basil leaves

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1 cup good quality semi-dried smoked tomatoes, roughly chopped

½ cup bocconcini balls

¼ cup vodka

about 100g-150g pasta per serve (use a thick flat-style pasta that will catch the sauce and melted cheese)

To serve

4 fresh red chillies

1 ball burrata or buffalo mozzarella

microherbs (optional)

METHOD

1. Preheat oven to 190C-200C. Place the chillies on a lightly oiled baking sheet and roast for 10-15 minutes, or until skins are thoroughly blackened. Flip to expose the other side and cook another 5-10 minutes, or until skins are thoroughly charred. Remove and set aside.

2. To make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in a small saucepan. Add the chopped onion and garlic and fry gently until golden. Add the tomato passata and season with salt and pepper. Add several fresh basil leaves and cook gently for about 10 minutes.

3. While the sauce is simmering, bring a pan of water to the boil, add salt and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain well.

4. Add the semi-dried tomatoes, vodka and bocconcini to the sauce. Return to low heat until the cheese just starts to string and melt. Add the drained pasta and shake the pan to coat the pasta in sauce.

5. Remove from heat, divide among four serving bowls and top with each a coarsely torn piece of burrata or mozzarella, a roasted chilli and microherbs. Serve piping hot.

Serves 4

Pork and beef polpette (meatballs) with spaghettini and fontina.

Spaghettini and meatballs scattered with fontina cheese. Photo: Katrina Meynink

Pork and beef polpette with spaghettini and fontina

This sauce is the gift that keeps on giving. Use the leftover sauce to douse plain pasta or even boiled eggs. It is worth the small effort of making it from scratch – the flavour is glorious.

INGREDIENTS

Polpette

500g pork mince

250g beef mince

2 small free-range eggs

75g sourdough bread (about one slice), coarsely torn, softened in 1 tbsp milk

small pinch chilli flakes

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 tbsp​ flatleaf parsley leaves, chopped

salt and pepper to season

Tomato sauce

100ml extra virgin olive oil

1 white onion, finely sliced

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 tsp chilli flakes (or to taste)

salt and pepper to season

750g fresh tomatoes, quartered

3 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes

1½ tbsp oregano leaves, chopped

castor sugar to taste

To serve

about 100g pasta per serve

slow-roasted cherry tomatoes on the vine (optional)

pinch chilli flakes (optional)

½ cup basil leaves, loosely packed

fontina cheese, grated

METHOD

1. Combine the meatball ingredients in a bowl, using your hands to work the herbs and spices through the meat mixture. Roll into golf balls (or whatever size meatballs you prefer) and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Cover and place in the fridge until ready to cook.

2. For the tomato sauce, heat half the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and gently fry the onion, garlic, chilli, salt and pepper for 15 minutes or until onions are glossy and transparent. Add the fresh tomatoes and the rest of the oil and simmer over low heat for another 15 minutes. Add the tinned tomatoes, and simmer over low heat for one hour.

3. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the chopped oregano. Add sugar to taste – this will depend on how sweet your tomatoes are – and adjust seasoning if necessary. Allow to cool slightly before transferring to a blender and blitz until smooth. (This will make about 1.5 litres of sauce.)

4. Preheat the oven to 220C. Remove the meatballs from the fridge and bring to room temperature before roasting in the oven for 10 minutes, turning once until they are starting to brown.

5. Pour half the tomato sauce into a large saucepan, add the meatballs and ensure they are thoroughly coated in sauce. Poach the meatballs in the sauce for 10-12 minutes.

6. Cook the pasta according to packet instructions. Drain, divide among serving bowls and top with meatballs (between two to four a person) and any extra sauce. Season with salt, pepper and chilli flakes (if using), scatter over basil leaves and generously cover in fontina. Serve hot.

Serves 3-5

Beetroot pasta salad with radicchio, gouda and onion

If you don't feel inclined to make your own pasta, you can buy beetroot pasta from gourmet grocers and delicatessens. If you make your own, it may not have the same vibrant colour as commercial pasta.

INGREDIENTS

Pasta

250g beetroot, roasted and cooled

350g tipo 00 pasta flour (plus extra for dusting)

2 egg yolks

1 tsp salt

Radicchio salad

1 head radicchio, leaves separated, washed, dried and coarsely torn

1 red onion, thinly sliced

½ cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

gouda, grated or shaved, to taste

3 beetroot, roasted, cooled, peeled and chopped into chunks

Dressing

1-2 tbsp balsamic glaze (or to taste)

olive oil to dress

METHOD

1. Puree the cooked beetroot in a food processor, place in a large bowl and combine with the flour, egg yolks and salt. Knead on a well-floured surface until smooth and elastic, adding a little more flour if needed. Wrap in cling film and rest dough in the fridge for 30 minutes.

2. Dust the dough liberally with flour, then flatten it into a rectangle with your hands. Once flattened, begin to roll the dough into a long, thin sheet, dusting both sides liberally with flour as you go as the beetroot will make it quite tacky. Roll through a pasta machine until desired thickness.

3. Dust the pasta liberally with flour again, then fold it into a wide, flat roll. Folding the pasta into a flat roll instead of simply rolling the pasta up into a tube will help prevent the pasta from being squashed as it's cut. Use a sharp knife to cut the pasta into strips.

4. Shake the cut pasta strands out into a loose pile and dust with flour.

5. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Drop in the pasta and cook for 2-4 minutes. Drain and season generously. Scatter over some of the cheese while still hot.

6. Combine the salad ingredients in a bowl and toss gently to combine. Add the warm pasta and the dressing ingredients – roughly 30 per cent balsamic syrup to 70 per cent olive oil – or to  taste. Check the bitterness of your radicchio. You may need more balsamic syrup for balance. Turn into bowls, scatter over the remaining gouda and serve immediately.

Serves 4

Many mushroom cannelloni bake.

Pasta bake with mushrooms and white wine bechamel. Photo: Katrina Meynink

Many mushroom cannelloni bake

This pasta bake would look cute with little enoki mushrooms poking out from each tube. For a more traditional cannelloni bake, pre-cook the pasta according to packet instructions before filling, and reduce the baking time by about 20 minutes.

INGREDIENTS

40ml olive oil

1 red onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

100g butter

500g mixed mushrooms, finely diced

2 tbsp lemon thyme, leaves only

500g ricotta

¼ cup shredded parmesan

500g cannelloni shells

White wine bechamel sauce

100g butter

50g (⅓ cup) plain flour

450ml warm milk

100ml white wine

¼ cup parmesan, finely grated

¼ cup smoked cheddar

METHOD

1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and gently fry the onion and garlic for 15 minutes or until onions are glossy and transparent. Add the butter, and once melted, add the diced mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are soft and fragrant.

2. Remove from heat, sprinkle with lemon thyme leaves and season generously with salt and pepper. Add the ricotta and parmesan and stir thoroughly to combine. Check seasoning.

3. Fill the cannelloni shells with the mushroom mixture using a small spoon or a piping bag fitted with a wide nozzle. Place the filled shells, facing upright, into a high-sided baking dish (the sides should be high enough to stop the cannelloni collapsing during cooking).

4. Preheat oven to 180C.

5. For white wine bechamel sauce, heat butter in a saucepan over medium heat until foaming (1-2 minutes), add the flour and stir until mixture is light brown (2-3 minutes). Add half the warm milk, and whisk vigorously to loosen, then add remaining milk and stir until beginning to bubble (2-3 minutes). Remove from heat, add the wine, parmesan and smoked cheddar and season to taste.

6. Pour the bechamel over the filled cannelloni and bake in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden on top and completely cooked through. Serve with green salad.

Serves 4