Out of habit, I make a lot of pasta. I have made hundreds of variations of this dish, with some sort of ground meat or sausage, some variation on vegetables, and sauce. Come to think of it, I could pretty easily write an entire cookbook full of them, changing the ingredients to accommodate the changes in season and mood. This particular version, however, was special. In my world, no dish exists that is more delicious and comfortable. It has a few really fresh and high quality ingredients, none of which are expensive, and it could satisfy even the most insatiable crowd.
I would serve this to my friends on a Tuesday night, but I would not be ashamed to serve it to my mother on a Sunday. I never really feel the need to serve it with any accompanying side dishes because it is packed with veggies and served over spaghetti, and there is nothing that brings people together better than a family sized bowl of pasta in the middle of the dinner table. I also love to entertain with a dish like this because it only takes about 40 minutes to prepare and there are plenty of things for guests to help chop.
One thing that makes this particular pasta unique is the flavor the sauce gets from the vodka. If you have never tried a vodka sauce before, it is awesome. The flavor is more subtle than you would think, but it is sharper and cleaner than the flavor you get from using wine. I was first turned on to the idea of using vodka when I had the linguini arabiata at a great little place in East Bay Area in California called La Piazza. This family oriented Italian restaurant has an open kitchen with a few bar stools to watch the action, so I was able to pick up some ideas for recreating this dish myself. The nice thing about preparing it at home was that I could use whatever vegetables and meat I chose, and I was able to substitute the heavy cream for the yummy sheep’s milk feta, an option I felt a little better about.
View the recipe below as a cooking method rather than specific dish, although these ingredients do work together quite harmoniously. I often search the fridge, inventory the fresh produce and protein on hand, and piece together a meal spontaneously. So if you happen to have kale instead of spinach or chicken sausages rather than ground pork, you can absolutely make this happen. My last bit of advice on this dish is to make twice as much as you think you will need for that night…it’s even better left over.
Heat the olive oil in large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and fennel and cook until they begin to become translucent. Add the garlic, pine nuts, and red pepper flakes. Season the pork with salt and pepper and add to the pan, allowing the meat to brown before you turn it. When the second side is cooking, break the pork into bite site bits with the back of a wooden spoon.
When the pork is browned on both sides, add the vodka and allow the alcohol to cook off for about five minutes. Add the tomatoes and the tomato sauce and reduce the heat to low. Stir in the chopped spinach. Break up the feta over the sauce and slowly stir it in to the sauce. Stir in the reserved fennel fronds. Add the cooked spaghetti to the skillet, and toss well all together. Serves four with leftovers!
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