Penne alla vodka is a classic Italian American recipe and one of my favorite simple tomato sauces. The combination of the deeply flavored marinara sauce, the richness of the cream, a little bite from the vodka, and some spice all tossed with pasta makes it great Italian comfort food. Add in seared chicken breast and chorizo and you have a easy weeknight meal!
Actually, while I think it’s Italian American, the origins of the dish are rather fuzzy for one which only came into being something like 40 years ago. However, whether it was first made in Italy or in American (or the result of a vodka contest), there is no doubt that Americans have embraced the dish and made it their own.
Anyway, what’s not to love?
Deep, intense tomato flavor. A glug of cream. And there are very few recipes which aren’t improved by a shot or two of appropriate alcohol. All but a teeny bit cooked off of course!
Oh, and it’s quick to make. Isn’t that the best? Awesome layered flavors to make your taste buds happy and you can get it on the table in 30 minutes.
And it all comes down to the marinara sauce.
Penne alla vodka with chopped tomatoes or whole canned tomatoes? Takes longer and it is not nearly as good! Trust me on this – marinara is the way to go. I mean who is going to argue with better flavor and less work when you’re making dinner?
Now, I do make my own marinara sauce, so there is some work here. 🙂 However, you can make the sauce in a big batch and freeze it in bags waiting for you to pull them out for dinner. And, of course, I’m not going to be in your kitchen making you put on a pot of sauce. Have a jarred sauce with deep and fresh tomato flavor that you love? I won’t tell.
Though, really, you should make the marinara sauce. You won’t be sorry.
And you could stop there! Penne alla vodka with marinara and cream? Yay! It’s yummy. 😍 But I wanted some protein in the meal, which meant I pulled out a chicken breast and…one of my favorite standbys to pump up the flavor…chorizo!
A couple things about the chicken. One, use a regular boneless skinless breast, not the thin sliced. You want to cut the chicken down through the breast to get the shortest meat fibers. It makes a big difference on how tender it is! You’ll see the fibers when you look at the breast and just cut down and slice it up.
Two, you need to sear! The first time I thought ‘oooh chicken sounds good in this’ I just dropped the pieces in the sauce. So boring!!! Season the pieces with salt and pepper, get your pan good and hot (no non-stick here), and brown them. Once they are brown, off to a bowl while you give the chorizo a sear and then the make the rest of the sauce.
As of for the chorizo, you can use links or slices like I did. You can go for the spicy chorizo or for the mild chorizo (linguica if you’re Portuguese). Linguica is great for kids or for people who don’t like spice and then adding the pepper flakes (and when you add them) is up to you.
The daughter is hot and cold on the spice issue right now, so we use the mild sausage and add pepper flakes at the table. She loved my spicy Italian arrabbiata sauce (another 20 minute recipe!), but requested no pepper flakes in this sauce.
Once you have a marinara to use, the rest is incredibly simple and always moves along so fast that I’m all ‘oh no, I forgot to slice the basil!’ and rushing around to grab a few leaves and get them prepped while also stirring the sauce, pulling out a bottle of wine, and deciding on a dressing for my salad.
Don’t be like me. It’s too stressful! Be organized, get your basil out, make your salad dressing, and open the wine before you’re in the intense part of the recipe and can’t leave the stove.
Whether penne alla vodka (with chicken!) (and chorizo!) came here by way of Italy or started here, you can’t go wrong with this quick and tasty comfort food!
– Happy Eating, Annemarie
My penne alla vodka is creamy and full of deep tomato flavor from homemade marinara along with plenty of seared chicken and chorizo sausage. Easy weeknight meal
- 12 oz penne
- 1/2 lb chicken breast, about large breast
- 1/2 lb chorizo sausage
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- kosher salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/3 cup vodka
- 2 cups marinara sauce
- 1/4 tsp red chili flakes, optional
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 4 tbsp sliced fresh basil
Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil. Add the penne and cook it according to the package directions. Before draining the pasta, scoop out 1-2 cups of pasta water.
Slice the chicken breast down through the meat into 1/4 inch thick cross sliced pieces and then cut the pieces into bite-sized chunks. Similarly, slice up the chorizo into 1/4 inch thick bite-sized pieces.
In a large, deep skillet, heat the oil on medium-high heat until shimmery. Season the chicken well with salt and pepper and lay the pieces in the skillet. Sear them, unmoving for 1-2 minutes. When they are ready they will loosen from the bottom of the pan. Flip them over and sear until the chicken is cooked through, another 1-2 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a bowl.
Add the chorizo to the now empty skillet and give it a good sear on both sides, 3-4 minutes total. Remove the chorizo to the bowl.
Lower the heat to medium-low and add the vodka. Cook for about 30 seconds. The vodka will be almost cooked off. Then add the marinara sauce, red pepper flakes (if using), and cream and bring the sauce to a simmer.
Once the pasta is done, add it to the skillet along with 1 cup of the pasta water. Simmer the pasta with the sauce for about 2 minutes, adding more pasta water if needed. Add the meat back in to warm it up. Sprinkle the basil over the top and serve.
- Timing: Penne takes about 10 minutes to cook and the sauce takes about 15 minutes to make including searing the meat. So that I'm not trying to juggle too much at once I like to put the pasta in the water at about the time I'm searing the chorizo. The sauce can simmer for a few extra minutes but I don't like to let the pasta sit. Also, begin heating the water when you are pulling out the ingredients and prepping. That way it'll already be at a boil when you begin cooking.
- Chicken: Since the chicken is cut thin and seared quickly, I chose to salt the chicken instead of giving it a brine. The salt gives it plenty of flavor and by removing the chicken to a bowl and only adding it back at the very end you can keep from drying it out.
- Chorizo: The chorizo/linguica I buy is smoked sausage which I find near the bacon in the market. I find it in links, in sliced rounds, and in chopped packets. Use either the links or sliced rounds in this recipe.
- Sauce: I use my own marinara sauce in the recipe and would (obviously!) recommend you try it as well. However, any well-balanced, simple, fresh tasting sauce will give good results.