“Pasta is always the same and yet always different,” James Beard once said. “It has a comforting familiarity with its pale golden color and chewy wheat flavor.” And while reassuring familiarity is something to be cherished, boredom at dinner is not.
Let’s face it, we’ve all stared at a packet of pasta and thought, “How can I get creative with this?”
On a busy evening, a fresh batch of pasta with our favorite sauce jar seems like the best option, especially when time is of the essence and the cupboard is empty. But a little creativity and just a few more ingredients can take pasta to new heights.
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What are penne pasta?
The name “penne” comes from the Italian word for pen (quill) because the angled ends of the pasta resemble the tip of a quill pen. Penne comes in both smooth and ribbed versions and is a fantastic addition to a variety of dishes.
Ribbed (Rigate) penne can be used with virtually any sauce—thick or thin—and the ribs help soak up every last drop and are mature enough to support thick, chunky sauces. The hollow tubes are also filled with cheeky delicacies.
Smooth penne (Lisce) doesn’t soak up quite as much sauce but is just as fabulous. I like to reserve smooth penne for soups, casseroles and as an accompaniment to stews.
Penne and most other pasta shapes are made from durum wheat flour, a sturdy grain that makes a sturdy noodle that’s very forgiving, even if you don’t get straight to the pot when the timer goes off.
Penne stays tough and resilient after cooking, while pasta made from softer wheat will fall apart if overcooked. Because penne keeps its shape with or without the sauce, it’s great fun for little ones who often eat with their hands.
Recipe: Penne in light pink vodka sauce
One of my favorite ways to serve penne is with this easy Pink Vodka Sauce. Tender penne tubes are tossed in a velvety tomato and cream sauce that’s laced with vodka and scented with onion and garlic, and topped with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil. It’s a dish that can be made with ingredients that are likely already in your pantry, and it only takes about 20 minutes.
Why put the vodka in the sauce? Vodka enhances the flavor of tomatoes by drawing out and concentrating their inherent sweetness. Plus, the alcohol adds a subtle bite that contrasts perfectly with the sweet cream in the sauce.
can you omit the vodka Yes! Simply replace the vodka with an equal amount of vegetable broth, chicken broth, or reserved pasta cooking water.
Makes: 4 servings
- 1 pound penne or other pasta shape of your choice
- 2 cups tomato sauce or mashed tomatoes
- ¼ cup vodka or ¼ cup reserved pasta cooking water (see note above)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup heavy or whipping cream
- Grated Parmesan for serving
- Chopped fresh basil for serving
- Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain, reserving ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water (if not using vodka). Set aside and cover with foil to keep warm.
- In a large saucepan or high-sided skillet, combine tomato sauce, vodka, olive oil, dried basil, dried oregano, onion powder, garlic powder, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.
- Place the pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Reduce heat and stir in cream. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then fold in the cooked noodles and cook 1 minute to reheat.
- Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil and serve with additional Parmesan cheese on the side.
What can you make with a pound of penne?
Think of penne as a blank canvas and build your masterpiece around it. Even adding a strategic ingredient from your pantry can completely transform this chewy wheat pasta into a mind-blowing dish. Roasted red peppers, capers, olives, pesto, and even balsamic vinegar can turn everyday pasta into a gourmet meal.
Here are a few ideas to get your creative pasta ideas flowing:
- Penne with Spicy Sausage – create a meat sauce with sweet or spicy sausage
- Penne Arrabiata – Add spicy sauce and crushed red pepper flakes
- Seafood Penne – add shrimp, clams and canned tomatoes
- Penne Pie – like spaghetti pie but much easier to eat
- Penne Primavera – add various veggies
- Penne Florentine – toss the pasta with creamed spinach
- Penne Alfredo with Eggs and Bacon – Add the store-bought alfredo sauce and add some over-light eggs and bacon
- Penne Mac N Cheese – swap penne for elbow macaroni
- Penne with Tomatoes, Tuna and Capers – add canned/bagged tuna, cherry tomatoes and capers
- Penne with broccoli and garlic – tossed with olive oil
- Cacio e pepe penne – like the classic spaghetti dish with roasted black pepper
- Penne with Olive Tapenade – Add store-bought olive tapenade
- Caprese Penne – add fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes; drizzle with balsamic glaze
- Thai Penne with Chicken and Creamy Peanut Sauce – Add store-bought peanut sauce
- Penne with Mushrooms and Thyme – Add sautéed mushrooms and thyme
- Pesto Penne – Add store-bought basil pesto
- Penne Jambalaya – add Cajun seasoning, shrimp and andouille sausage
- Chicken Caesar Penne – add cooked chicken, Caesar dressing and shredded croutons; Serve with romaine lettuce if desired