Valentin’s Orchiette Alla Vodka

July 18, 2014

Memo: if you host an exchange student, you’re going to be spending more time in the kitchen than you usually do.

Well, if you’re me, anyways. Maybe it’s because I wanted him to try new things, or maybe it’s because I’m a show-off…the jury’s still out on that one…but I did spend quite a bit of time cooking and stirring things this June/July.

Valentin was a really adventurous and willing taste-tester. He was also an incredibly well-mannered taste-tester; he deemed everything I made “delicious,” even though I had a sneaking suspicion that some things, such as the halibut in Thai curry broth and my grilled zucchini salad, weren’t exactly his favorite things on the planet. Kid has a good appetite and an excellent poker face, though. I’ll never know for sure.

Well, I do know about the hot wings he tried, but I didn’t make those, so I plead innocence.

Before he arrived, I emailed him, asking him what (if any) foods he was allergic to or didn’t like. He replied that he wanted to try anything and everything but the one thing he didn’t like was (he said apologetically) Coca-Cola. He actually doesn’t like any carbonated drink. The kid lived on apple juice and milk.

The aversion to Coca-Cola was no problem–I don’t let the girls drink it anyways. Over a months time, though, I did learn that he wasn’t completely honest with me in that introductory email. I learned he loathes cucumbers, which I’m glad I found out about early on, because this family runs on cucumbers in the summer months. He’s also not big on lemon or citrus of any kind.

We also learned that he loathes American iced tea, which made for a pretty humorous lunch one day. No matter how many packets of sugar he stirred into his glass, the grimace remained the same.

He was a surprisingly good vegetable eater, although one dinnertime conversation was quite illuminating. “I always eat my vegetables first,” he said. “Did you notice that?” I hadn’t noticed, but I asked him why.

“Because vegetables just taste kind of like nothing,” he said. “I always save my favorite things to eat last. I get the vegetables out of the way first.”


I thought that was fascinating, because when I tackle a plate of food, I always eat my favorite thing first. I’m always afraid I’ll get full before I eat the good stuff; plus, aren’t the first bites of a meal always the best?

This little tidbit led to a conversation with all of my children and–who knew?–all of them professed to eating the least desirable item on the plate first. Great. Yet another instance where I’m an oddity.

Although it was a bit of a guessing game which dishes Valentin truly liked out of my kitchen, this one was one of his favorites. I know this because his eyes rolled back in his head a little after the first bite and an instinctual little “mmmm,” came out of his throat.

I made this pasta sauce with different types of pasta over the month he was with us, but I think the orchiette version was his favorite, and I don’t blame him. Orchiette (or “little ears” in Italian) have a lovely little curve to them, and the sauce pools up delightfully in the little nooks and crannies.

As the month progressed, I learned to go a little easier on the pepper (“why you always pepper so much?”) and to use a lesser amount of parsley (“what is this stuff that tastes like grass?”) and you can certainly adjust the recipe to your taste.

Valentin liked the version with mushroom and Canadian bacon the best, but sometimes I made it with artichokes or peas or sun-dried tomato or chicken. Feel free to throw in whatever pleases you, really. The sauce is a blank (but delicious) canvas for almost anything.

If your family takes the Valentin approach to eating, I guarantee that this will be the last thing they devour on their plate.

Orchiette Alla Vodka

serves 4-6, depending if you’re serving young boys

1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil

3 chopped shallots (or one small onion, diced)

1 clove minced garlic

2/3 cup vodka

1 cup good quality tomato puree, such as Cento or Muir-Glen Fire Roasted

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup reserved pasta water

4 ounces chopped ham or Canadian bacon

1 cup sliced mushrooms (optional)

a pinch or two of crushed red pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4-1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound orchiette pasta

2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1/2 cup fresh parsley, basil or chives, chopped


Melt butter and oil in a heavy 12-inch saucepan/skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute 1-2 minutes.

Stir in the vodka, bring it to a simmer and cook for about 4 minutes to evaporate the alcohol. Add tomato puree and cream. Simmer 5 minutes. Add ham and mushrooms, the crushed red pepper, salt and pepper. Keep warm at a very low flame.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of well-salted boiling water until al dente. Set aside a cup of the pasta cooking liquid and drain pasta.

Add the pasta to the sauce and add the cooking liquid by tablespoonfuls until it reaches the right consistency. You will doubtfully use all of the pasta water (I usually end up using about 1/2 cup, but do it according to your taste preferences.)

Add the cheese, stir, and serve, sprinkled with any of the fresh herbs listed above.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Tiffany July 18, 2014 at 6:29 am

I will be making this next week for sure!! I always eat my veggies first too…sorry!


Shannon July 18, 2014 at 6:38 am

I actually think I can make this. I actually think I will. If I ever have an exchange student, I’m afraid he/she would be sorely disappointed in my kitchen skills.


Alison July 18, 2014 at 7:19 am

We are a pasta-loving family!
Can I be an exchange old lady at your place, pretty please?


Annette July 18, 2014 at 8:25 am

Did Hubs eat it? My hubs is trying to avoid rich foods like heavy cream. It sounds delicious, though! Maybe I can find a way to lighten it? But then, it won’t be so delicious!


Dana Talusani July 18, 2014 at 8:51 am


My husband did eat it. Actually, traditional “alla Vodka” sauce has 1 1/2 cups heavy cream in it, so I lightened it considerably using 1/2 cup cream. If you want to lighten it, you can just stir in a couple of tablespoons cream at the end and increase the tomato puree.


C. Troubadour July 18, 2014 at 12:31 pm

I confess to eating the vegetables on my plate first as a kid, partly from the original instinct to save more desirable foods to end the meal on (like dessert!). But now I think I eat them first because they get cold fastest. Cold stuff meant to be eaten piping hot from the wok (we stir-fry most of the vegetables we buy) is just disappointing to the palate and a disservice to good produce. Though tell that to O., a 17-month-old veggie lover but one who does not like his food to be more than tepid …


Dana Talusani July 27, 2014 at 7:48 pm


My husband is Indian and they eat almost all of their food tepid in his family. It drove me nuts. They’d leave the food on the counter for a half hour to cool before eating it. Whaaa?


pamela July 18, 2014 at 1:07 pm

This looks delicious!!! Can I be your exchange student next year?


bBiz July 19, 2014 at 10:30 am

I held a pizza night when our exchange student was here. Weird that all the German kids loved to eat the raw pizza dough!

Love that you catered to his tastes though! :D

You can check out my OLD recap here:


Virginia July 21, 2014 at 7:15 am

This sounds delicious. But, I did want you to know that i totally eat my favorite food first for the exact same reasons you mentioned above. :)


Dana Talusani July 27, 2014 at 7:46 pm


I know!! Those first three bites of food are the best! Why waste them on the bad stuff?


Lisa @ The Meaning of Me July 21, 2014 at 11:35 am

I love a good Vodka sauce. I particularly love mine with come really good prosciutto in there – nice and crispy. The Hub, however, is not a fan and we are not Vodka drinkers so the materials for this are rarely on hand. This just made me so hungry for some, though, that I just may get enough to make the sauce and give it a whirl.
The Hub also eats his least favorite food on the plate first – saves the best bite for last. I do the same. Kidzilla, however, plunges through the favorite items first with all sorts of happy noises coming from her little foodie face and leaves the least-liked for last. So she’s the odd one here.


Dana Talusani July 27, 2014 at 7:45 pm


Tell Kidzilla that this oddity thinks her method of eating is normal ;)


Tinne from Tantrums and Tomatoes July 22, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Small wonder Valentin adored this!


Dana Talusani July 27, 2014 at 7:47 pm


I know! Just take a bath in this dang sauce, right? So good.


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