I have to preface this by saying that, being the picky child that I was, I hated and abhored Italian food during the formative years of my life. Crazy, right?! Everything was all cheesy and tomatoey, and I hated cheese and tomatoes. I used to peel cheese off of pizza, then use my finger to scrape the sauce off, yielding, essentially, soggy bread. I'm ashamed, in retrospect. Although I still hate cheese, I've come to adore Italian-American fare and true Italian cuisine. But the first meal I ever actually enjoyed (and by enjoyed, I mean loved and would sell my first born child for a bowl of it) was penne in vodka sauce. Sometimes called penne à la russe (Russian-style because of the vodka), this creamy concoction is all I would order in Italian restaurants for many years. However, it's always way overpriced (usually coming in around or over $10 a plate). Even before I went vegan, I tried lots of recipes to make my own at home for a fraction of the price, but they never turned out quite right. And of course, once I did go vegan, I tried vegan versions, and those didn't meet the mark either. When I came across this Ina Garten recipe, I knew I had to try it. Ina may be all snooty living in the Hamptons with her posse of multi-talented gays and only using "good ingredients" (oh my god, so sue me if I can only afford the supermarket house brand!), but I have yet to try a recipe of hers that isn't damn near perfect. And oh sweet jebus, I have found heaven. Of course, Ina doesn't call it penne alla vodka. Oh, no. That term is for the rabble and the hoi polloi. You know, people who can't afford a $60 Braun Citromatic juicer (to be kept on the counter at all times to get 1 tablespoon of lemon juice for a recipe). Ina calls her dish Penne alla Vecchia Bettola, which, I found out, is a restaurant in Florence where this dish is their specialty. It tasted nearer to what I remember from restaurant penne in vodka-cream sauce than anything I've ever had.
Of course, I made a couple minor alterations. First of all, I used coconut milk in lieu of cream. That may sound odd, but you really don't taste coconut at all in the final product, and it creates the perfect creamy mouthfeel. Also, I didn't add the fresh oregano at the end. For starters, I don't like fresh oregano much. Also, I remember fresh basil always being in my penne alla vodka, so that's what I used instead. I also went ahead and used a whole pound of penne instead of three-quarters of a pound because it just seemed silly to me to not use the whole box (I used Ronzoni Smart Taste, bee-tee-dubs). Otherwise, I followed this recipe exactly. And I'm so glad I did because it was just lovely.
Alongside, I served some simple roasted broccoli. I used a recipe from America's Test Kitchen (one of my favorite programs), which you can find here. The recipe and accompanying video are, for now, free if you sign up for a free account (once a new season starts, recipes from previous seasons are considered premium content). However, that can be annoying if you're only looking for this one recipe. I'm not going to re-post it out of respect for copyright laws, but I will tell you that the secret is to add a little, teensy bit of sugar in addition to the usual oil, salt and pepper. I also added a little bit of garlic powder because I didn't want regular garlic to burn in the high heat of the oven.