Cajun Chicken alla Vodka Sauce

Iadore a simple, easy to make, fragrant pasta… and this is definitely one of them! If you’ve made a Penne alla Vodka before then you can already imagine how good this is going to be. There are various ways a person can zoot up a Penne alla Vodka by adding various different proteins and spices. This time round I was in the mood for a spicier version so decided to marinade some chicken breasts in a Cajun marinade and then build the Pasta alla Vodka around that. The fresh rocket on top adds a lovely fresh peppery element to this dish and the final drizzle of chili oil and parmesan is just perfection.

The origins of penne alla vodka are somewhat debated, but there are a few prevailing theories about its creation:

1970s Italy: Some sources suggest that penne alla vodka was created in Italy in the late 1970s or early 1980s. This theory posits that the dish was developed by Italian chefs looking to innovate traditional pasta recipes by incorporating new ingredients like vodka.

Luigi Franzese: Another theory attributes the creation of penne alla vodka to Luigi Franzese, a chef at Orsini Restaurant in New York City in the 1970s. According to this account, Franzese experimented with vodka in the sauce to enhance the flavors of the tomatoes.

Restaurant Marketing: Some believe that penne alla vodka was invented as a marketing gimmick by Italian food and beverage companies. During the 1980s, companies like Bertolli and Smirnoff promoted recipes using their products, and penne alla vodka may have emerged as a result of such campaigns.

Regardless of its exact origins, penne alla vodka became especially popular in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. The dish is celebrated for its rich and creamy texture, with vodka adding a unique depth to the tomato sauce without overpowering the other flavors.

Key Components of Penne alla Vodka:

Penne Pasta: The dish uses penne pasta, which is well-suited to holding the creamy sauce in its ridges and hollow center.
Vodka: Vodka is used in the sauce to help release flavors from the tomatoes and other ingredients. The alcohol mostly evaporates during cooking, leaving behind a subtle flavor.
Tomatoes: The sauce typically includes crushed tomatoes, pureed tomatoes or tomato paste, which form the base of the dish.
Cream: Heavy cream is added to the tomato sauce to create a rich and creamy texture.
Aromatics: Garlic, onions, and sometimes shallots are sautéed to build the flavor base of the sauce.
Cheese: Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese is often added for additional richness and umami.

I used the Banhoek Chilli Oil Company’s chilli oil (IYKYK) – it’s perfectly spicy, oily and adds just the right amount of heat to any dish. You can easily get addicted, so beware!

And then obviously I use Barilla, it’s my go-to pasta brand. When I make fresh pasta it’s usually fettuccini, linguine or farfalle because I cut and shape it by hand.

Cajun Chicken alla Vodka

A recipe where Cajun spices meets Italian simplicity - this pasta is spicy, creamy and loaded with flavour. A simple hybrid that's always a winner amongst my guests!
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Course: Main Course
Cuisine: French, Italian, Spanish, West Africa
Keyword: Cajun, pasta, recipes, Spicy, Vodka
Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

Chicken Marinade

  • 2 chicken breasts halved lengthwise
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Juice form 1/2 a lemon
  • 1 tbsp Cajun spice see note 1
  • ½ tsp black pepper coarsely ground
  • 1 tsp salt

Chicken Pasta

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion diced
  • 4 garlic cloves finely diced
  • 1 tsp freshly chopped chili or chili flakes
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • ¼ cup vodka
  • 1 cup cream
  • 250 grams penne pasta see note 2
  • ½ cup pasta water optional, see note 2
  • chili oil/chili crisp see note 3

Basic Rocket Garnish

  • ¼ tsp light brown sugar
  • ½ tbsp white wine vinegar
  • ½ tsp olive oil
  • 20 grams fresh rocket see note 4
  • ¼ cup parmesan freshly grated, see note 5

Instructions

  • Cut each chicken breast in half lengthwise so you have four smaller chicken breasts. In a medium bowl, add the halved chicken breasts, olive oil, fresh lemon juice, Cajun spice, black pepper and salt together. Mix until combined and coat well.
  • Bring a large saucepan to a medium-high heat. Once the pan has reached temperature, sear the chicken breasts on each side for 2-3 minutes per side. Once the chicken is fully cooked through, remove from the saucepan and set aside to rest.
  • In the same pan, on medium-high heat, sauté the onions, garlic and chili until slightly caramelized (this delivers loads of flavour). Reduce the heat to medium and add the tomato paste. Sauté until the tomato paste has darkened in color and starts to stick to the base of the pan.
  • Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of salted water to a rolling bowl and cook the pasta for 7 minutes or until al dente. Note: remember to keep at least 1/2 cup of pasta water aside before draining the pasta.
  • Once the tomato paste has darkened, deglaze the pan with the vodka and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the cream and allow to simmer for 1-2 minutes. Note: do not let the sauce reduce too much as you want a saucy pasta (see note 2).
  • Slice the rested chicken as you wish. Remove the sauce from the heat and add the sliced chicken and cooked pasta. Mix until everything's coated in the sauce. Salt to taste and allow the pasta to rest for 5 minutes before dishing up.
  • Whilst the pasta is resting, you can assemble the basic rocket salad as a garnish. Mix together the light brown sugar, white wine vinegar and olive oil. Lightly tear the rocket apart if it's too chunky, pour over the dressing and place a handful on top of each serving. Finish off with grated parmesan and your favourite chili oil or chili crisp and you're ready to stuff your face!

Video

Notes

  1. Cajun spice: you can happily replace this with Portuguese chicken spice or your favourite spice that'll complement the tomato/lemon taste profile.
  2. Pasta: I like using penne but naturally you can use your favourite shape. There's no real difference. You can also keep 1/2 cup of the pasta water aside and use that to loosen up the sauce. If you've accidentally reduced the sauce too much then you can add 1/4cup-1/2 cup of pasta water to the sauce. Just add a dash at a time otherwise you'll just end up with a watered down pasta (excuse the pun).
  3. Chili oil/Chili crisp: I used Banhoek Chili oil because it's absolutely divine. I also use various other chili crisps/oils but you can use whatever you fancy.
  4. Rocket: you can either dress the rocket and place it on top of the pasta before serving or you can mix it in just before serving. It ass a lovely fresh peppery element to this rich, creamy pasta.
  5. Parmesan: I prefer to only add the freshly grated parmesan on top of the rocket, just before serving but feel free to grate an additional 1/4 cup of parmesan and add it to the pasta sauce for added richness.

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