pasta alla vodka and the best caesar
plus a full dinner party menu with hosting tips
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I hope you’re all having a nice finale to 2022. I’m sending Sunday’s recipe early again this week. Last Sunday was Christmas, so I sent the salmon tempura crunch bowls a few days early. I loved seeing how many of you cooked that meal on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day! It’s truly an honor to have you cook and share my recipes with the people you love.
And I want you all to cook this meal for New Year’s Eve! Whether you plan to spend Saturday night on the couch in sweatpants or dressed up with friends, this is the meal to usher in 2023.
Pasta alla vodka is magical in its ability to be cooked quickly and easily on a weeknight, but also feel just right for a more special evening. And we’re pairing it with a Caesar because… best crowd-pleasing salad ever.
I cooked this exact meal for my family on Christmas Eve. On its own, this is a gorgeous meal — perfect for a simple dinner party or a random Tuesday. But dressed up with a fancy table setting and a few other menu items? It’s a fabulous, fun, unexpected dinner party recipe!
the perfect NYE menu + tips on how to pull it off
A few friends and I are throwing a New Year’s Eve dinner party on Saturday and we’re cooking this exact menu. Also, my friend hired a TaskRabbit to help clean up, which I might be more excited about than the food itself?
A big bowl of punch is such a fun way to start the evening. Mix everything but the champagne ahead of time (I like to add pomegranate seeds or raspberries too to make it look a little more festive), chill, then add the champagne right as guests begin to arrive. Don’t add ice to the bowl itself, add it to the cups so that it doesn’t dilute the punch.
Mix a little leftover pomegranate juice and pear nectar with some club soda to make a nice non-alcoholic cocktail.
After one round of punch, switch to Ranch Water so that you can all function in the morning. Make a station with a big bowl of halved limes, a lime squeezer, tequila, and club soda. Easy, delicious, and everyone will thank you in the morning when they’re not fending off wine hangovers.
Mini crab cakes
A friend is bringing these, but I love this recipe — just make them tiny!
Make the crab cakes up to 24 hours in advance. Allow them to cool, then refrigerate in an airtight container. Reheat on a baking sheet in a 375°F oven for 10 to 12 minutes.
Cream cheese with pepper jelly
I’m introducing my California friends to this Southern delicacy. Let the cream cheese come to room temperature, then spread it into a thin layer on a small plate. Top with pepper jelly and serve with crisp crackers. ENJOY.
You can totally assemble this and cover with plastic wrap up to 24 hours in advance. Just set it out to come to room temperature an hour before serving.
Perfect for NYE because you can just leave it out and people can continue to snack on it after dinner!
My perfect board: 3 meats, 3 cheeses, 3 fruits, 2 salty things, 2 sweet spreads, 1 savory spread.
More specifically? Salami, prosciutto, soppressata. Blue, brie, aged cheddar. Sliced persimmons, sliced apples, grapes. Olives and cornichons. Honey and fig jam. A good mustard. Slice the hard cheeses up ahead of time — it will encourage people to eat more, trust me!
the main event
Kale Caesar salad (recipe below)
Caesar dressing can be made up to a week in advance. Kale and romaine can be chopped up to 24 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container wrapped in paper towels. Croutons can be made up to 24 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
Or, make life easier by buying pre-chopped romaine and a store-bought Caesar dressing. Save my recipe for another day. Ken’s Steakhouse Creamy Caesar with Roasted Garlic is an excellent store-bought Caesar dressing. Make the croutons though, they’re a really nice touch.
Pasta alla vodka (recipe below)
Vodka sauce can be made up to 24 hours in advance. Just stir in a large pot over medium heat to rewarm, then stir in the pasta and pasta cooking water.
The pasta can be cooked just before the party! Leave it in a colander in the sink (don’t rinse it!), then toss it into the warmed sauce with the reserved pasta cooking water. It’ll look like it’s totally clumped together, but it’ll break apart as it warms up in the sauce.
Grilled flank steak with creamy pesto
How have I never shared my creamy pesto recipe on a public forum?! Basically use this recipe but instead of 1/2 cup EVOO in the pesto, only use 2 tablespoons EVOO and add 1/2 cup sour cream. It is so freaking good. I’ll share a proper recipe here soon!
Steak can be seasoned up to 24 hours in advance. It can even be grilled in advance, sliced, put onto a platter, refrigerated until an hour before dinner time, then served at room temperature! This is a good move to alleviate hosting stress. Room temperature food is a good thing!
Pesto can be made up to 48 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Crunch cake with really good ice cream (probably McConnell’s?!)
I know you can’t get a Crunch Cake if you’re not in SF, but the point here is: outsource dessert. Get something really fabulous from a local spot.
Not an outsourcer? Make my 10-minute blender pot de creme!
a parmesan tip
I’ve shared this tip many times on Instagram, and I’ll say it again because it is an excellent one. Both of these recipes use Parmesan (buy the good stuff — Parmigiano Reggiano), and buying an 8ish ounce hunk of Parmesan and grating it yourself versus buying pre-grated will yield much more delicious results.
Grating Parmesan is a pain in the butt though! Instead, cut off the rind (throw the rind in the pot next time you make Lemony Chicken and Orzo Soup — Parm rinds add excellent salty umami flavor to soups), break the Parm into a few chunks and blend it until grated to a powdery consistency!
That’s right, you can grate Parmesan in the blender!
last year’s NYE menu
Was also pretty fantastic. If short ribs and confetti cake sound more apropos for your occasion, check this menu out.
kale caesar with crispy chewy croutons
Cook time: 20 minutes
Large bowl (for serving)
4 slices of bread, preferably a nice crusty sourdough or something, but anything works, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Big pinch of garlic powder
8 ounce chunk of Parmesan cheese, divided (this will be enough Parm to use for both the salad and the pasta alla vodka — if you’re just making the salad, you will only need a 4-ounce chunk)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Juice of 2 lemons (about 5 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 small garlic cloves, smashed with the side of a knife
6 to 8 olive oil-packed anchovy fillets
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 hearts of romaine lettuce, trimmed, washed, dried, and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bunch lacinato kale, deribbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Preheat oven to 375°F.
On a parchment-lined baking sheet, toss 4 slices of cubed bread, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, a big pinch of salt, and a big pinch of garlic powder. Spread into an even layer and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until crisp on the edges but still chewy in the center.
Blend the entire 8-ounce block of Parmesan cheese until finely grated. To do so, cut the rind off (save the rind in the freezer for future cooking), cut it into a few chunks, and blend until it’s grated into a powdery consistency. Once grated, transfer all but 1/4 cup of the Parm into a bowl for later use.
To make the dressing, blend everything up except the lettuces (1/4 cup grated Parmesan, 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup mayonnaise, the juice of 2 lemons, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 2 small smashed garlic cloves, 6 anchovy fillets, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper). Use 6 anchovies at first — blend in up to 2 more if you want more anchovy flavor.
Put the chopped greens (2 hearts of romaine lettuce and 1 bunch lacinato kale) and the baked croutons in a large bowl and drizzle nearly all of the dressing over it. Use your hands to mix everything together, making sure each and every piece of lettuce is coated with dressing. After tossing, sprinkle 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan on top.
pasta alla vodka
Serves 4 to 6
Cook time: 30 minutes
1 pound tubular pasta, such as paccheri (my fave), rigatoni giganti (pictured), penne, fusilli, or rigatoni
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 shallot, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste (or a heaping 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (this does add a bit of heat so omit or lessen for a spice averse crowd)
1/4 cup vodka
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving (this will come from the 8-ounce block of Parm you grated for the Caesar salad recipe. If you’re making this pasta recipe and NOT the Caesar, you’ll buy and grate a 4-ounce block of Parmesan.)
Thinly sliced fresh basil, for serving
Bring a large pot of salted water (2 tablespoons of kosher salt in the water is my general rule of thumb!) to a boil and cook 1 pound of tubular pasta until al dente (read the box to find your pasta’s ideal cook time!). **RESERVE 2 CUPS OF THE COOKING LIQUID BEFORE YOU DRAIN THE PASTA!! I’M YELLING AT YOU BECAUSE EVERYONE ALWAYS FORGETS TO DO THIS AND IT’S VERY IMPORTANT!** Once you’ve reserved 2 cups cooking liquid, drain the pasta and set aside (don’t rinse it! It’s fine if it looks like it’s clumping together!).
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons unsalted butter. Cook 1 minced shallot, 4 minced garlic cloves and a big pinch of salt until softened, 4 to 5 minutes.
Stir in 6 ounces tomato paste and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes and continue cooking until the paste and shallots have combined into a nice chunky paste, and it is turning a nice deep red color, 3 to 4 minutes.
Stir in 1/4 cup vodka and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, and 1 big pinch of salt until smooth. You might need to use a whisk to get any clumps out. Stir in the cooked pasta and a small amount of pasta cooking liquid. Add more cooking liquid a splash at a time as needed for the sauce to be very thick and cling to each noodle perfectly (I usually use between 1/2 cup and 3/4 cup). Taste and season with kosher salt as needed.
Serve and garnish with thinly sliced fresh basil and more grated Parmesan.
Make ahead: To make the sauce ahead of time (up to 24 hours), you can go ahead and do everything except for adding the pasta cooking water. When it’s dinner time, reheat the sauce over medium heat, cook your pasta, and stir in the pasta cooking water then the cooked pasta. See more prep-ahead notes in the “main event” section of my NYE menu above!
Stock your freezer: This vodka sauce freezes beautifully. Double the recipe and freeze half for later! Caesar dressing won’t freeze well, FYI, so plan to use any extra in the coming week.
Cooking for one or two: Make the entire batch of sauce and freeze half! Cook only 8 ounces of pasta, drain, then return it to the pot you cooked it in. Add about half of the sauce to the pot with several tablespoons of pasta cooking water, until it’s clinging to each piece of pasta and is as saucy as you want it. For the salad, simply halve the recipe.
Vegetarian: Use 3 tablespoons of capers instead of anchovies in the Caesar dressing.
Dairy-free: Use your favorite vegan Parm throughout both recipes. For the pasta, opt for plant-based butter. You could also swap in coconut cream, soy milk, or almond milk for the heavy cream.
Gluten-free: Find a gluten-free bread you love for the croutons! And any gluten-free noodle alternative (like Banza chickpea noodles) would be delish with this vodka sauce.
Must have meat: Grilled chicken or shrimp would be excellent mixed into your pasta alla vodka. Or, like we’re doing on NYE, serve the pasta and salad alongside whatever meat entrée you’d like. See the NYE menu section above for ideas!
Don’t want a side salad: If you’re cooking this on a weeknight and want a veggie but not a whole side salad, throw some sautéed asparagus and/or mushrooms into the pasta alla vodka.
Bread: You can seriously use any bread you have for these croutons! But using a really good sourdough makes them extra special.
EVOO: Olive oil or a neutral-tasting vegetable oil like canola, safflower, and sunflower
Garlic powder: Onion powder, garlic salt, or omit
Parmesan cheese: Remember, you’re looking for Parmigiano Reggiano. Sub options include Grana Padano and Pecorino Romano.
Mayonnaise: Traditional Caesar dressings use egg yolks and oil. Guess what those two ingredients create when blended together? MAYO! So I use mayo as a shortcut and to ensure that your dressing doesn't “break.” So I really do recommend using mayo here. Plain yogurt will also work, but it won’t be as good!
Lemon juice: You can just use all red wine vinegar. Or any light-colored vinegar like white wine vinegar wine or apple cider vinegar
Red wine vinegar: White wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
Garlic cloves: For the dressing: 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder or 2 frozen garlic cubes. For the pasta sauce, use 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder or 4 frozen cubes.
Anchovies: 3 tablespoons capers (1 teaspoon per anchovy) or 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Romaine lettuce: Green leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, bagged Italian lettuce, or an extra bunch of kale
Lacinato kale: An extra romaine lettuce heart
Pasta: Tubular noodles like Paccheri (my fave!), penne, fusilli, or rigatoni are ideal because the sauce fills the noodles, adding so much flavor to each bite. That said, any noodle you’ve got in your pantry will be delicious with this sauce!
Unsalted butter: Salted butter, but season with salt sparingly at the end. Olive oil, EVOO, or another oil would also work in place of the butter.
Shallot: 1/2 a yellow or white onion
Tomato paste: A 28-ounce can of tomato sauce, tomato purée, or diced tomatoes. If you use purée or diced tomatoes, cook until thickened, about 10 minutes, before adding the heavy cream
Crushed red pepper flakes: 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Vodka: 2 tablespoons water and 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (or another light-colored vinegar)
Heavy cream: Whole milk, half-and-half, or see the “dairy-free” note above for more options
Fresh basil: Fresh parsley or omit if needed!