Spicy, creamy, and crazy good – Kung Pao Spaghetti alla Vodka, a Sichuan-style pasta with vodka sauce. It’s a dish that will have you going back for extra helpings!
This past weekend Mr. HNN and I were supposed to take the dogs 6 hours up the coast and go camping for a few days in the Redwood State Park. We were super excited, looking forward to getting away for a few days and roughing it with the pups. Unfortunately, the night before we were supposed to head out, we noticed that one of our dogs, Otis, had developed a fairly significant irritation between two of his toes. With all of the hiking and other outdoor activities we were planning on doing with the dogs, we feared that would only exacerbate the problem. So we decided, in an abundance of caution, to postpone the trip and reschedule.
So with our weekend suddenly and totally open, I decided to finally create a dish I had been thinking about for some time – a Sichuan-style pasta alla vodka. You may be familiar with California Pizza Kitchens uber popular Kung Pao Spaghetti. Think of that spicy kung pao taste with an added rich and creamy vodka sauce.
When I told Mr. HNN about my idea, he said, “that sounds kind of weird.” That wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that statement. And wouldn’t you know it, every time he says that he ends up absolutely loving it! This dish was no exception.
One of the most notable ingredients in this kung pao dish, are the Sichuan peppercorns. Did you know that Sichuan peppercorns are not peppercorns at all? They’re actually the husk of a dried berry from a small citrus tree called a prickly ash. Not only that, while Sichuan peppercorns are often thought to contribute the iconic heat associated with Sichuan cuisine, they actually contribute very little in that regard. What they do add, is a numbing/tingling sensation. They’re even said to ‘vibrate’ or ‘buzz’ in your mouth, like a carbonated drink. When used in the right proportions, the sensation is actually quite pleasant and allows you to actually enjoy some of those more subtle flavors that the chili peppers provide. Unfortunately there’s no really good substitute for Sichuan peppercorns, so just omit them if you can’t find them and/or don’t want to order them online.
- 5 large tomatoes
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1-2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns*
- 2-10 dried red chilies, roughly chopped, seeds discarded*
- 4 scallions, white parts thinly sliced + 2 of the 4 green parts thinly sliced (green parts for garnish)
- 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 inch ginger, grated
- ¼ cup vodka
- kosher salt
- 1 pound spaghetti pasta
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ¼ cup dry roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, cut a shallow 'X' in the bottom of each tomato. Prepare a bowl of ice water and set aside. Once the pot of water comes to a boil, plunge the tomatoes into the water for 30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Peel the skins off and slice the tomatoes in half. Lightly squeeze each half over a sink to dislodge the seeds. Cut the tomatoes into a small dice and allow to drain in a colander for 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
- In a large sauté pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the Sichuan peppercorns and once they start to sizzle, cook for 2 minutes longer, until fragrant. Remove the peppercorns with a slotted spoon and discard.
- Turn the heat down to low and add the chili peppers to the Sichuan peppercorn infused oil. Cook until they darken, less than 1 minute. Add the scallions, garlic, and ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the vodka. Return the pan to medium heat and cook until reduced by half. Add the tomatoes and ½ teaspoon salt. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
- Add the pasta to the pot of boiling water you prepared earlier and cook until al dente, about 9-10 minutes. Drain well and add the pasta to the sauté pan.
- Add the cream and stir well until the well incorporated, about 2 minutes. Taste and add more salt, if needed.
- Divide among bowls, sprinkle with scallions and chopped peanuts. Serve immediately and enjoy!
* Dried red chili peppers are generally sold as 'dried red chili peppers' and not specifically labeled. Depending on the type of chili you buy and its age, the heat can vary greatly. To gage it's level, you'll want to smell the chilies when you open the bag. If it's pungent and tickles your nose, they're probably pretty hot. If you don't get much fragrance off of them, they're probably more on the mild side. If I've learned anything from cooking with chilies, it's that someone's idea of what is hot, covers the spectrum. So use the amount of chili peppers that best fits your comfort level.
* Another note about the dried chilies - when cut into small pieces, I enjoy the extra bit of heat of biting into them. If you want the flavor but not the additional heat, then slice the chilies lengthwise (so they're in larger pieces), remove the seeds and cook as directed. When done cooking, simply remove them and serve.
P.S. Otis’ foot is on the mend and he hasn’t slowed down a bit 🙂 Otis (left) and Arlo (right)