This luscious, creamy tomato pasta is coated in a rich vegan vodka sauce (made with canned tomatoes and cashews!).
The first time I tried penne alla vodka was on pizza. Yep, you read that correctly. If you’ve never been to a pizza shop in NYC, penne alla vodka pizza may seem like an outrageous concept – but it’s actually quite standard here.
Growing up, my local pizza spot was Pronto’s near Marine Park in Brooklyn, and their penne pizza was my absolute fave. Their pies have this thick, chewy crust with a crispy bottom – i.e. the kind of crust that can accomodate a heap of creamy penne and a layer of gooey mozzarella without buckling under its own weight.
For the longest time, I didn’t even realize penne alla vodka without pizza was a thing.
When I set out to veganize my beloved creamy pasta, I knew cashews would be the key. The classic version is made with tomatoes, vodka, and heavy cream. For this vegan vodka sauce, I substitute the dairy with cashew cream (soaked cashews blended with a bit of miso for savoriness). This vegan creamy tomato pasta may be dairy-free, but it’s every bit as rich and indulgent as the original.
Where’s the Vodka?
I’ve always been perplexed as to why there’s vodka in this Italian-American classic. Wine in food makes sense, since it adds acidity and fortifies the base flavors of a dish (like in my Mushroom Bourguignon). But vodka? It’s flavorless and evaporates anyway. What’s the point?
According to Google, one theory is that vodka emulsifies the acidity of the tomatoes with the fat in the cream. Another is that vodka heightens the flavor of the tomatoes.
So I headed to the source I trust most, Serious Eats, which has (yay!) done a lab test on the subject. Turns out, vodka does enhance the tomato flavor… but only by a tiny bit.
Long story short, my vegan vodka sauce doesn’t actually call for vodka, since I don’t drink the stuff (bad Ukrainian, bad!) and it’s not totally necessary, anyway.
The Importance of Pasta-Cooking Water
A major component of this creamy tomato pasta is the addition of the pasta-cooking water to the sauce – a classic technique used in lots of pasta dishes, including cacio e pepe and carbonara. The salty, starchy water creates a silkier, creamier sauce. The tricky part? Remembering to reserve the water before draining the pasta! I like to keep my Pyrex measuring cup by the pot while the pasta cooks, which serves as a visual reminder.
This luscious creamy tomato pasta is coated in a rich vegan vodka sauce (made with canned tomatoes and cashews!).
- 1/2 cup raw cashews
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small or 1/2 medium yellow onion, finely diced
- 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
- One 15-ounce can tomato sauce
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons white miso
- 1 pound short pasta, like cavatappi, rigatoni, or penne
- Minced parsley or basil, for serving
- Place the cashews in a bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Soak for at least 30 minutes or up to a few hours.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, garlic, pepper flakes, and salt, and cook until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and black pepper, cover with a lid, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 8-10 minutes, until the sauce is a bit thickened.
- Meanwhile, drain the cashews and transfer to a blender or Nutribullet, along with the miso and 1 cup of filtered water. Blend until completely smooth and creamy. Add to the tomato sauce and stir to incorporate. Taste and season with salt, if needed. Turn the heat off.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Right before draining, reserve about 1 cup of the pasta-cooking water.
- Combine the hot pasta with the creamy tomato sauce and 3/4 cup of the reserved pasta water. Stir to combine. Add more pasta water if a creamier consistency is desired. Taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed. Serve immediately.
- Serving Size: 1/6 of the recipe
- Calories: 410
- Carbohydrates: 68.7 g
- Fiber: 5.8 g
- Protein: 8.3 g
Keywords: pasta, vodka sauce, creamy, tomato, cashews