Penne a la Vodka

Today, our yearbook sponsor photographed the class favorites. This day always makes me smile because there is so much overlap between the categories. Most atheletic is also a valedictorian. Most school spirit has awesome style and is also brilliant. And so many of my students not there today show so many of these traits, too — they are athletic, talented, friendly, stylish, beautiful, full of school spirit, and likely to succeed.

In the 90s, that’s what my small class chose for me — “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’m still as intimidated by that label in my 40s as I was at 17. Succeed at what? If my classmates knew then that I’d become a school teacher and move back to our hometown (neither was in the original game plan), would they demand a recount? So many of the students posing around the fountain today are much more intelligent and accomplished than I ever thought of being at 17.

But I left thinking about my two “friendliest.” Quarantine is hard on everyone, but it is harder on the friendliest among us. Today was the first time I’ve ever seen one of these kids not hug her friends. However, friendly, when it applies to these two, doesn’t necessarily mean outgoing (although they can be that, too). Instead, “friendly” seems to be high school’s way of saying “kind.” These kids, like so many of the teenagers I teach, have giant hearts. They show this in ways small and large. Yes, they volunteer around our community and care about big issues, but they also actively look for ways to make people’s days brighter in small ways — every day. And they are not alone.

When I think of the truly successful adults I know, they also frequently show this relentless kindness. Sure, intelligence helps, and hard work is indispensable. But showing that you think of other people and doing little things to make their days better? That’s the success to which I aspire.

Which brings me to this pasta…

This is a summer favorite around here, but it requires a lot of fresh basil. And it’s early in the basil season, so we haven’t had it since last summer.

One of my best friends heard me mention that we had killed our basil seedlings. While she was out, she saw some basil plants and brought them to me. I was indescribably happy when I saw her standing in my yard, basil plants in each hand. It’s these small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that make her one of the most successful people I know.

Penne a la Vodka (adapted from Ina Garten and an Italian restaurant I loved in college, but whose name I don’t remember)


  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 8 oz white button mushrooms, sliced (optional)
  • 1/2 cup vodka
  • 1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 pound penne pasta
  • 1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for serving


  • In a heavy skillet, heat the oil. Add the onions and a pinch of salt and cook over medium high heat for 6-8 minutes, until translucent. Add the garlic, oregano, and red pepper, and cook for one minute.
  • Add the mushrooms and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until their liquid begins to release.
  • Add the vodka, tomatoes, and salt. Simmer for 40-45 minutes. (This means the alcohol cooks out and you can serve it to your kids).
  • When the sauce is almost done, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until it is al dente (you want it a little firmer than usual because it will cook a bit more once you add the sauce.)
  • While the pasta is cooking, add the fresh basil and cream to the tomato sauce. Bring the sauce back to a simmer, but do not boil. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until thickened. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed (I usually need to add a little more salt and black pepper).
  • Drain the pasta, reserving a bit of the pasta water (about 1/2 cup, usually).
  • Add the pasta to the sauce and cook for 2-3 minutes, adding the pasta water to thin as necessary.
  • Off the heat, stir in the parmesan. Serve this hot with extra fresh basil and extra parmesan.

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