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Frankie's Spicy Vodka Sauce

Things things things. I’ve got a lot of things going on these days. Things that are rapidly changing. Things I didn’t anticipate changing. Things I desperately want to change, and changing things that I wish could stay the same. This is life though, isn’t it? When it rains it pours. And when it pours, life will pass you by if you don’t hold on tight.

I’m working on fixing up the website to make it more glossy and professional looking. Frank and I just put our place up on the market. (I’m terrified!) We haven’t a clue where we’ll be moving to next. I’m thinking about writing a cookbook. Friends are starting to ask about kids. All the while, I’m searching out where my next day job will be. A certain level of stress is healthy, but lately I’ve been maxed out. My sweet husband pretends he doesn’t notice it on my face, but the lines are there.

So while we have all of this chaos happening around us, it’s always comforting when I know there is something constant just around the corner to look forward to. What now seems like ages ago, one of those constants swung by the apartment recently. It’s called Frankie’s Spicy Vodka Sauce and it’s delicious.

You may recall my recent post just before Valentine Day about my thoughts on that particular holiday. Did you read it? Of course you did. This website is so popular that I’m sure it’s all that comes to mind when thinking about food. Since I know you definitely read that post, you know that I get to look forward to the same meal every year. My husband has a handful of specialty dishes that he brought along to our marriage. A couple of them he came up with himself and need no tweaking – Italian style rice and beans, for instance, sounds a little strange but is something so incredible I could eat for days. Then there are a few that he learned from his grandmother, and while we may play around with them slightly, the basic recipes stand the test of time.

Such is the case with his version of vodka sauce. On Valentine Day, we welcome anyone to dinner. Friends, relatives, neighbors, whomever. If you have no plans and want a great plate of pasta, come on over. This year, it ended up being just the two of us at the last minute. I love when Frank cooks, because I usually get to help in some way. I don’t touch the focal point, just the surrounding accents.

Since this year February 14 fell on a Saturday, we were able to really enjoy the day. We ran whatever errands needed to be done in the afternoon and picked up the last of the ingredients for dinner. Frank chose garganelli for the pasta shape, so I worked on those earlier and checked back* a few times to make sure they held their shape.

By the time night fell, Frank was ready to get in the kitchen. The recipe he was taught begins with two cloves of garlic, sliced, and a small onion. He’s since switched from an onion to a shallot, since this is such a delicate sauce. This way, the onion flavor is mellower and a little sweeter. Heating about a tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan, the garlic goes in on low heat to prevent burnt bits, with salt and pepper. After a few minutes, he added the shallot with another round of seasoning. (I have to say, this is the single best piece of life advice my man’s picked up from me. You have to season every layer to bring out the best flavor of each ingredient. Nobody likes bland food!) Keeping the heat on low, that sits for a few minutes more until it’s time to add the tomatoes.

Now. This is where I get treated like a queen on special occasions. Normally, I cook with tomatoes from San Marzano. They’re the best, right? San Marzano tomatoes come from just outside of Napoli, and they have a thicker skin with fewer seeds. The usual tinny flavor that comes along with canned food, and exemplified by the acidity of this particular fruit, is almost non-existent with San Marzanos. Plus, because it’s a better quality product, cooking time on the stove to reduce that canned flavor can be shortened quite a bit when you don’t have an entire day to cook a red sauce. And this is all great. But. When Frank makes something just for the two of us involving tomatoes, he’ll splurge and pick up Pomì boxed tomatoes. Pomì’s vines are located further north, in Parma, and are a different type of tomato grown in a different type of soil. They also happen to be packaged in cartons, as opposed to cans, so they are slightly fresher and have no reaction to metal. If you can find the brand, try it out and see what you think.

He added the entire carton of strained tomatoes, which is around 26 ounces (it’s a funny European measurement on the label, so I’m just assuming it’s around a regular-sized can by eyeing it up over his shoulder), and seasoned again. Then he added, oh let’s say, one teaspoon of red pepper flakes? If you like spice, add more; if not, don’t add any. Up to you!

While the sauce begins to cook off some of the acidity, this is where we’ll sometimes change up the old recipe again. Often, we will add a nice mushroom or herb, or sometimes both. We decided to leave it without mushrooms this time, but I’m going trust that he probably added some basil leaves or maybe rosemary to scent the sauce while it cooked. Rather than chopping the herbs up, Frank will leave them whole and then remove them before serving, to avoid overpowering the flavor. Then goes in one-quarter cup of the house vodka** to give that extra touch, and finally, one-half cup of heavy cream.

One last step we’ve been adding to the dish for a while now is crispy prosciutto. You heard me! What a treat. (Simply heat a small amount of olive oil in a pan and fry those paper-thin sheets of heaven until crisp. Drain on a paper towel and set aside.) After I had gotten the prosciutto in order, I put together one of Frank’s favorite winter salad, which has also become the standby in our house – blood orange, microgreens, raw shallot and toasted hazelnut, dressed simply with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

My cutie cleaned up some of the dishes while I plated our wintry meal. Once we sat down, it seemed obvious to both us of that this was going to be a deliciously relaxing meal. No guests to entertain, no place to be, and if we wanted, no stressful aspects of our life to talk about. Frank’s amazing sauce didn’t hurt, either. It was delicate, smooth and filled with flavor.

Every time he makes it, I not only fall more in love with the dish itself, but this amazing man as well. He’s been my support, my voice of reason, and the only person who’s going through these monumental changes alongside me. Repeat meals like this one remind me of why our whirlwind romance worked in the first place – when you find something pretty perfect, grab onto it and see where it takes you.

*When making a tubular shaped pasta by hand, it's always a good idea to check back and gently reshape the little guys until they dry out a bit. Otherwise, you may end up with flattened noodles. And that would be a sad plate of noodles.

**Tito's Handmade Vodka is our go-to choice of vodka. It's made in the USA, is affordable, and a damn good vodka!

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