#WeeknightKitchenista: Sausage & Spinach Penne in Vodka Sauce

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Disclaimer: I received a product sample for this post. This post contains affiliate links.

I'm back with another easy dish to pull together for beginner cooks. Consider this a #WeeknightKitchenista meal that doubles as an acceptable date night dish! Today I had the guys in mind, who often ask me for help coming up with something reasonably impressive to make for their loved ones. The biggest challenge I come across helping bachelors is that they're often slacking on having a fully stocked kitchen. No shade, just an observation and recurring conversation...

The basics of home cooking is a topic I'm passionate about. I definitely plan to cover kitchen equipment in more depth in my upcoming ebooks. For now, check out my Cookware and Pantry tabs of this site if you need recommendations.  The good news for this post? All you need is a large heavy skillet and a pot large enough to boil pasta. If you want to serve it in individual portions like I did, mini cast iron skillets or small casserole dishes make for great presentation. Your date will be impressed and it gives somewhat of a restaurant style feel to the dish! If this isn't a special occasion, you can simply serve this pasta family style in the same skillet you used to cook it.

Doctoring up a jar of prepared pasta sauce isn't just for less experienced cooks. There's absolutely no shame in keeping a few jars of marinara on hand for busy nights. When your significant other drops by, at least you can always whip up some pasta, right? (This will quickly wear itself out so please be sure to have some other dinners in your arsenal. Eventually.) The catch is that I want you to look for sauces made from all natural ingredients. They'll taste better and more like something homemade. Stay away from sauces made with tomato paste, tons of preservatives and ingredients you can't pronounce. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, spices and herbs are all you should really see as main ingredients. Some sauces are sweetened to balance acidity but sugar should be one of the last things listed (there are also plenty that are sugar free.) In short, pick a sauce that doesn't have a lot of junk in it. If you're cooking for a nice occasion, you can treat it as such and spend a little more on a specialty sauce, imported pasta and good cheese.  This can be a $10 dish or a $30 dish, it's really up to you and your preferences! I was introduced to Jar Goods through a post I did late last year and was excited to try more of their line. For my Sausage & Spinach Penne, I used their Classic Vodka sauce, which is like a great marinara turned up a notch with the addition of vodka and cream. Tomato sauce with a splash of cream added is one of my favorite indulgences, ever. I was seriously thrilled about making this tonight!

The cooking techniques to prepare this pasta are simple. While the pasta boils, you'll brown some Italian sausage and stir in diced shallots. Add the vodka sauce, thawed frozen spinach and basil. Simmer for a few minutes before stirring in the cooked penne. Finally, you'll top it all with melted cheese. It's flavorful and comforting, doesn't require a ton of ingredients, and nobody's going to know (or care) that you took a shortcut making it. The secret's all in the sauce, so choose wisely and you won't need to worry about much else!

Sausage & Spinach Penne in Vodka Sauce

1 lb hot Italian pork sausage (removed from casing)
1 large shallot, diced
8 oz penne rigata pasta
8 oz prepared tomato vodka sauce
8 oz frozen spinach
1/4 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced
1 cup Fontina cheese, shredded (whole milk mozzarella or provolone would also work)
Kosher salt, as needed
Olive oil, as needed

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Yield: Serves 2, all quantities can be doubled
Special Equipment: Large pot, heavy ovenproof skillet, individual casserole dishes (optional)

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil while you gather the rest of your ingredients. When you cook pasta, you want to add a couple tablespoons of salt to the water; you should be able to taste it. This seasons the pasta while it cooks. Even the greatest sauce won't make up for underseasoned pasta, so don't skip that step.

Go ahead and get your sausage into the skillet first. While that cooks, you can dice your shallot and thaw the spinach (a few minutes in the microwave is fine!) Sausage tends to be fatty enough on its own so you shouldn't need to oil the skillet first. Just add the loose sausage to the pan, turn the heat up to medium high, and break it up as it cooks. Once you don't see any pink, add the diced shallots and continue cooking until the sausage is browned a bit; about 10 minutes total. Drain any excess oil.

Penne takes about 10 to 12 minutes to cook, but confirm per your specific pasta package. You'll want to drop the pasta in around the same time you add the sauce to the skillet, so that everything is ready at the same time.

Once the cooked sausage has been stirred into the sauce, add the spinach and basil. After I thawed the frozen spinach, I dumped it into a clean dish towel and squeezed all the water out. Spinach holds a ton of water. You don't want that all in your dish, so make you drain it first. The basil was rolled up like a cigar and thinly sliced (also known as chiffonade.)

Stir that all together to break up the spinach and let everything simmer until the pasta is done, about 10 minutes. Check for seasoning; you might need to add a pinch of salt but not much else. Hot Italian sausage is flavored pretty well and so is the sauce, so this was one of those rare times that I didn't need to adjust.

The last bit of prep work to do while the sauce simmers is shredding your cheese (because you bought a block to shred yourself, right? Good.) You can also turn your oven on and preheat the broiler on low, arranging a rack on the upper part of the oven. When the pasta is done, transfer it to your skillet. You're looking for "al dente" texture - it should have a little bit of a bite left, but not taste undercooked. I love using my pasta scoop instead of having to dump the whole pot into a colander. Plus, it's always a good idea to save some of your pasta water. I'll tell you why in the next step.

Add the cooked penne to your simmered sausage and vodka sauce. Stir it in and let everything marry for a minute. The pasta will continue to cook a bit and absorb some of the sauce, so if you need to loosen things up you can add some of the reserved pasta water. Not too much, because remember it's salty, but a half cup or so won't hurt.

Honestly you could stop right here and serve dinner... but nothing ever gets worse with melted cheese, so here we are.

I took the fancy option and transferred my pasta to individual sized cast iron skillets, greased with a little olive oil. It's wise to use some kind of baking sheet when working with smaller dishes. That's easier to transfer in and out of the oven that way plus no worries if anything bubbles over. If you're serving family style, just leave the pasta in the ovenproof skillet and top that with cheese.

Pop the pasta under the broiler for a few minutes, just enough to melt the cheese completely. This isn't really a baked pasta dish, so you don't need to cook it longer than that. Top it with a couple basil leaves, and serve to your lucky guest.

I won't mention a particularly horrible "Italian" chain by name but I'm just gonna say this is way better than wasting your time going out, even if you aren't an expert cook. Going all out for your date? Heat up some breadsticks, make a fresh garden salad and grab a nice bottle of red wine.


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