Rich, creamy and super easy to make, this Dairy-Free Penne alla No Vodka is a riff on the classic Italian-American dish. It also happens to be vegan, alcohol-free and, if you use the right type of pasta, it can be gluten-free or grain-free as well, but your family won’t be able to tell the difference. Oh, did I mention it only has 5 ingredients?
What is Penne alla Vodka?
Penne alla Vodka is typically made by sweating onions and garlic in olive oil. Tomato product is then added, along with a splash of vodka and heavy cream. Sometimes the sauce is made with pancetta and chiles for additional flavour and spice. Despite being incredibly simple, it’s remarkably delicious – a hallmark of Italian cuisine.
Some recipes call for canned, whole tomatoes. Others include tomato passata (strained tomatoes – sometimes labeled tomato puree). Others still include tomato paste. Then there are those that like to combine two types of tomato product, like canned tomatoes and tomato paste, to achieve a looser consistency with more tomato flavour.
When it comes to pasta, penne rigate is a common choice. The sauce sticks along the ridges and gets trapped inside the small tubes. Any tube-shaped pasta, or even fusilli, work well here.
In this Dairy-Free Penne alla Vodka recipe, I like to keep things simple and easy by just using tomato paste. It adds a deep, delicious and concentrated tomato flavour to the sauce without having to cook down and reduce the flavour of canned tomatoes or passata. I then control the texture of the sauce by adding pasta water to loosen it to taste. However, you can certainly experiment with different combinations to see which you like best.
How is the Vodka Sauce Dairy-Free?
Rather than use heavy cream, I use a full-fat coconut milk. Because there are so few ingredients in the sauce, it is absolutely essential to use a coconut milk that tastes good and has a rich and creamy consistency. Not all brands make coconut milk equally.
Best Coconut Milk Brands
My personal favourites, and the only ones I use, are Aroy-D and Savoy. Both are excellent and made with nothing other than coconut and water. I buy Aroy-D in resealable tetrapaks, which makes it convenient for storing when I don’t use the entire package. Savoy is labeled as a coconut cream and contains 70% coconut extract. It is a bit thicker than Aroy-D and has a more concentrated coconut flavour. However, I find the two products to be interchangeable.
Note: If your can or carton of coconut milk is separated (thick cream on top and loose water on the bottom), you should first emulsify it in a blender before cooking.
If you notice that your sauce is watery, it is either because your coconut milk is not full-fat, or you have added too much pasta water. You can make the sauce thicker by gently simmering the sauce to reduce it.
Where’s the Vodka?
I may get some backlash for saying this, but I honestly don’t think you need any vodka in penne alla vodka! I know, crazy thought!
Personally, I couldn’t taste the difference when testing the recipe with and without the booze. Neither did anyone in my family. So, unless you’re hell-bent on using vodka, I see no significant reason to include it. Hence, the dairy-free penne alla no vodka.
Which Pasta Should I use?
As mentioned, penne rigate is my top choice for this dairy-free penne alla no vodka. The good news is if you’re restricting wheat, you can find plenty of varieties of gluten-free and even grain-free pastas.
One of my favourite brands of gluten-free pasta is Jovial Foods. Their brown rice pastas are as close to the real deal as it gets. They also recently introduced a grain-free pasta made from cassava flour. It has a more pronounced flavour and slightly chewier texture, but considering it’s both grain- and gluten-free, it is truly remarkable.
Note that the Grain-Free Cassava Flour Pastas are sold in 227gr packages, so you’ll need two boxes for the recipe as it’s written here.
If you’re in Canada, you can order Jovial pastas on NaturaMarket.ca.
What Goes Well with Dairy-Free Penne alla No Vodka?
If you want to serve this pasta with a protein, I recommend keeping it simple so you don’t overpower the flavours. Some options include pan-seared chicken or fish, like salmon. Seared shrimp would also work. You can even try folding some crab meat into the sauce. Deeeeelish!
Dairy-Free Penne alla No Vodka
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound gluten-free penne pasta substitute grain-free or regular penne pasta
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon dry red chili flakes – optional
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
- Freshly-cracked black pepper
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with 1 tablespoon salt, add the pasta and cook until al dente, usually 2-minutes less than the package instructions. Drain the pasta, reserving ¼ cup of the cooking water. Set aside.
- Add the olive oil and onions to a sauté pan. Season with a pinch of salt and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, around 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 60 seconds. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring with a whisk, 2 minutes.
- Add the coconut milk and whisk to combine. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced by 1/8 in volume, around 2 minutes. Taste for seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper as desired.
- Transfer the sauce to a blender and blend until completely smooth. Return the sauce back to the sauté pan. Add the drained pasta to the sauce and toss to coat. Serve immediately.