A labor of love

the homemade pantry

If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve probably been wondering when I would get around to giving this one away. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve referenced The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making and its warm-hearted author, Alana Chernila, but here’s a sampling: butter, ricotta, parp-tots, and of course those crackers.

Alice Waters is one of the people who made me think about food differently. Alana Chernila is one of the people who made me think about cooking differently. She has an absolutely infectious enthusiasm for cookery and with her family she makes a lot of kitchen magic. She also has the special ability to make that enthusiasm and that magic come through on the page (or on the screen). Having her book on the counter is as sparkly and inspiring as I imagine it would be to have her right there in my kitchen. She is simultaneously authoritative and approachable – the best kind of teacher. What I love most about her is, no matter the difficulty of recipe at hand, she makes me think I can do that. 

I am so excited to be offering this book as our next give-away, and I’ll tell you more about what we’re discussing in just a minute.

But first – remember how I was working on a special-delivery dinner for our friends who just had their first baby? We went to see them on Saturday, dinners in hand – and snacks and treats and things too – and holy smokes people – what a sweet little person. Their new little guy is a total keeper. Which is good, because we like to travel and adventure around the world with Frank and Steph, and we want him to come too.

vodka sauce garlic - this smells amazing

New-parent dinner deliveries are just about my favorite kind to make. After Lucas was born our amazing playgroup brought us multiple dinners each week, for months. Months! It made a huge impact on our lives, to have people care for us in that way. It also totally expanded my recipe repertoire. Hang out here long enough and it will expand yours, too, because lots of those meals are still on my menu rotation in one way or another. Claire’s pomegranate chicken, Rebecca’s (meat) lasagna, Yamile’s (vegetable) lasagna, Charlene’s teriyaki salmon with roasted carrots and parsnips, Danielle’s lime-peanut stir-fry … and Polly’s lemon cake. Oh lemon cake, lemon cake, lemon cake. We’ll talk lemon cake tomorrow. Tonight, though – tonight we’ll talk about Jessie’s vodka sauce.

pouring the cream

This is technically Jessie’s dad’s recipe, which is why it is called Mr. O’s Pasta Vodka. I still have the hand-written recipe card Jessie gave me after I begged her for it. Of all the amazing post-baby meals we had, this was possibly Kyle’s very most favorite — and it is definitely the one he insists on including when we do new baby dinner deliveries to friends. It is sinfully rich and delicious, and when the butter and garlic are slowly heating on your stove it is going to smell like heaven, assuming at least that the food in heaven could ever come close to smelling this good.

vodka sauce

One of my deep dark secrets about delivering post-baby dinners to friends is that I always make double batches, and then keep half. (Selfish, right?) This Vodka sauce is an exception though: I make the single batch and I have enough to give a huge container to the new parents, serve dinner for my family, and freeze a quart bag for a quick and easy dinner down the line. One more secret (and please don’t tell Mr. O!). I tweak the recipe – just slightly. I cut the Vodka in half, and double the tomatoes. I use mostly half-and-half instead of heavy cream.  And I sometimes add half of an onion. Just little things to make it a tiny bit healthier, a tiny bit more new-mom friendly. And only very slightly less sinfully rich and creamy, I promise.

Jessie's recipe

So now – what does this have to do with that book? Here’s what I want to talk about: is there a homemade staple that you love to share with friends, family, new parents or others in need of some support? Have you ever been given a homemade meal that made a huge impact – either because of the meal itself, or because of what it meant to you to be taken care of at that moment in time? What are we giving when we give something we have cooked ourselves? What are we getting when we are on the receiving end of a homemade meal?

Comments will close Sunday night at midnight. I can’t wait to hear what you all have to say.

pasta with vodka sauce and oregano

Mr. O’s Pasta Vodka (almost)
With extra special thanks to my friend Jessie Mitra – and to her dad, too.

As mentioned above, I make a few health-oriented tweaks. If you want to try the original (and it is crazy good!) use 100% heavy cream, just one 28 ounce can of tomatoes (or two smaller cans), and a whole cup of vodka. (Also, omit the optional onion). We like to serve this with a big green salad, and some bread for sauce-sopping. Broccoli is also great on the side, since it goes really well with the sauce.

1/3 cup butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
(Optional: half a small yellow onion, minced)
1 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste – less if cooking for little ones)
1/2 cup vodka
2 cans whole tomatoes, 28 ounces each (I really like Muir Glen brand when I use tinned tomatoes)
1 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/4 cups parmesan cheese, shredded

To serve: pasta (cooked), chopped fresh oregano, red pepper flakes.

Melt the butter over low heat in your favorite soup pan. Add oil. Saute garlic (and onion if using) for about five minutes, keeping heat low so the garlic doesn’t burn.

Raise the heat, add the vodka, and simmer for about five minutes. While this is simmering, run the whole tomatoes through the food processor. (You could also just use crushed tomatoes – I just tend to like the flavor better when I use whole ones and chop them up).

Add the tomatoes and cayenne to the pan. Bring almost to a boil then lower heat and simmer for twenty minutes.

Add the half-and-half and the cream,  and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cook for another ten minutes or so. Taste and adjust seasonings (adding additional salt as needed).

Toss the sauce with the cooked pasta and the cheese. Top with oregano and red pepper flakes.

Mr. O claims that this serves 12, but I’d guess more like 20! Or maybe even 20, plus one brand new little baby. Yum.

You might also like:


Parp tots


30 thoughts on “A labor of love

  1. I had the opportunity yesterday to pay it forward to one of the moms who made us a special meal when November was born. I was having a not so perfect Monday, so I left work early so I could cook and prepare the meal for delivery. I tried to remember what I liked the best of the meals that were delivered for me.

    Making the meal for her and her family changed my spirit. I think it brought back all of the visits and warm meals we received. I made Fettuccine Alfredo with broccoli and chicken, a mixed green salad, rolls and brownies. The meals that were my favorite were ones that seemed to think of everything, especially my sweet tooth:) I’ll have to keep the recipe for vodka sauce for the next time. It sounds wonderful!

    • Isn’t amazing how when we do something for someone else, it can totally impact our mood so positively? I think there is something about feeling useful, and focusing on someone else, that is really great for the spirit.

      And that little treat at the end is always a bonus :)

  2. We were just recently involved in cooking meals for a friend being treated for breast cancer. Some smart soul set up a profile for her on the Meal Train website so we could all see when she needed food, how much was needed, what other dishes people were making. It was incredibly easy and effective and made communication between everyone so simple. I highly recommend it if you ever need to organize more than just a few meals for someone.

    I just got Homemade Pantry from the library. I had to wait weeks for it to come in. Now that I’ve looked it over I’m certain I want to own it and I can’t wait to start cooking from it. Great book!

    • We have been part of similar meal programs – I have not used meal train, but it sounds similar to takethemameal.com, which I just learned about last year and really like. Baby meals are the happiest, but those other meals give us a real chance to brighten someone’s day, at least for a moment.

      It is a great book! There are many things I like about it. One of the best is that she offers starting points and advice, but really encourages people to take her recipes and find their own way with them. Empowering us home cooks, one pantry staple at a time :)

  3. Vodka pasta sauce is one of my absolute favorites. I have a slightly racier version that has you spike the sauce right before serving so it stays a little boozy!

    This recipe looks like a beauty and I loved reading the story that went with it.

        • I don’t think so, no. I cut it in half more to cut out any extra ’empty’ calories – but it cooks for so long that I don’t think the additional vodka makes it particularly more boozy.

          • Yeah, I always wondered about adding a lot of vodka to the sauce while it cooks because isn’t vodka supposed to be virtually tasteless by definition? That’s kind of why I like spiking it at the very end.

            I never thought about the vodka in terms of empty calories, but it makes sense!

  4. I would say that I always fall back on lasagna for friends. I feel like when people are too tired to cook, they don’t necessarily want something fussy, but instead want something filling and that would provide comfort. I know when I had my two, that’s what I wanted. I also don’t even get too fancy with the lasagna. Maybe an added veggie, or if I know they are sausage lovers I’ll put some in. But I like that they can cut it up into portions and throw it in the freezer for later if they don’t get to eat it all that week.
    That vodka sauce looks great, though. May need to give that one a try next.

    • You say lasagna, I say beef stew :) You are right on — I love delivering stew because it freezes easily and well, multiplies easily and well, and is comforting – lasagna fits those same bills exactly. The sauce is a good one too though – I usually deliver it as the “second” dinner in a two-dinner line up, with a box of pasta that they can cook themselves and a little container with the garnishes. They can keep the sauce in the fridge overnight, or in the freezer for a long while … I’d say it is definitely worth trying. Even if it’s just at home! :)

  5. First: yum! Second, I belong to a group that makes meals for members who need them–usually when there’s a new baby, but also in case of illness or other needs. I like it because I don’t usually know the people I cook for and it is a nice way to get to know and support other local families. (We also had meals delivered to us when my third daughter was born–what a luxury!). I usually make lentil soup and homemade bread, but I might add this sauce to the rotation!
    And finally, pick me! I keep picking this book up and haven’t bought it because I feel like I have go-to recipes for many of the things in the book–but I really want it. :)

    • Homemade bread is a great one – bread is easy to make, but it is so rare anymore that people DO make it, and so it can feel really special when someone gives it to you. There are a lot of recipes in here that are ‘staples’ and so if you like to cook you already have them (breads, granola, etc) … I find though that her ideas about what we can and might as well make ourselves are really inspiring – and the treats! I won’t give my kids store-oreos, but now I can give them homemade ones. Making graham crackers, toaster pastries, fig newtons — those things just never really occurred to me before Alana. Bread and soup and even ketchup had been done in our family – but definitely not twinkies. ;)

  6. Giving food to others is a special form of love. I really enjoy just randomly sharing baked goods with strangers, new neighbors and friends. It’s the ultimate in paying it forward to surprise someone whom you don’t even know with something that you have created. Words can’t express the warm feeling inside to share food.

  7. Sounds like you set your friends up with some yummy dinners! The sauce looks amazing and I like any idea that suggests making extra to freeze for an easy meal later on.

    Andy and I are known as the “friends who cook” and we always enjoy having friends over on Sunday afternoon to cook for them and hang out before the work week begins again. Sharing food and laughs with friends is priceless. Baking is also a love of mine, however it doesn’t look good on my waistline, so I get my baking fix and bring treats into work for my co-workers to enjoy. I like that my normally glum real estate co-workers cheer up and appreciate a little bit of baked yumminess. So far, I think the most requested baked good is homemade banana cake with whipped nutella frosting, it’s pretty darn good!

  8. I have three dishes I love to share with others. The first two are great for babies or illnesses because they are easy on the stomach and if the mother is nursing there’s not USUALLY anything that offends the baby’s digestive system. They are: Chicken and yellow rice…easy, economical and easy to re-heat. It’s also easy to make a double (or triple) batch to feed my own family at the same time. I deliver it with a bag or two of frozen sugar snap peas and a loaf of cuban bread. The next is the kopycat recipe for Olive Garden’s Chicken Gnocchi Soup for the above reasons! And I have a list of people that call me The Deviled Egg Queen…and when I feel like showering them with affection I deliver the eggs…errr, I mean goods ;-) Being from the South, showing love and caring with food is second nature. It’s what we do.

    • The Deviled Egg Queen! Love it. The easy-to-reheat point is a good one, too. And I am super curious – sugar snap peas and cuban bread?? Is that traditional somewhere with yellow rice and chicken, or have you just found it to be yummy?

  9. Sadly, most of our friends with babies live across the country (the disadvantage of living in the Bay Area — it’s so freakin’ expensive, people tend to move “back home” across the country as soon as they get pregnant!), so we end up sending gift certificates for food delivery or food baskets from local bakeries when there’s a new baby in the house. I do love cooking for folks as a sign of caring, though. A couple weeks ago, my boyfriend was just in an awful mood — tough week at work, things not going well in his painting studio, etc. His favorite dessert in the world is a good old-fashioned vanilla malted milkshake, so I hunted down malt powder and local organic vanilla ice cream and had a malted waiting for him when he got home. It didn’t completely turn his week around, but it sure did brighten his mood a bit :-)

    • Chris, I think the mood-brightening power of something homemade knows no bounds. And secretly, when the things are treats, I think it exponentially multiplies the power :)

  10. The meals after Lucas was born were amazing; each time we have that chicken, black bean soup, or lemon cake, it’s hard not to feel a bit nostalgic. Amazing food and people all around. We miss you. The one that stands out to me the most though is a meal that I received after I was first diagnosed with cancer. Out of nowhere, one day my high school AP English teacher dropped by with fresh baked bread and his signature soup — amazingly delicious, and as caring and genuine a gesture as I have ever experienced. It is always really special, whether at dinner each night with my family or in difficult moments like that one, when you are fed by someone who invests in sharing their love and support through their cooking.

  11. My favorite memory of bringing food to someone was when my co-worker, Maura Tucker, was going through chemo-therapy. I made my all-time stand-by, chicken vegetable soup. (My new favorite meal to bring is spinach-gruyere quiche. I’m so impressed by the fancy meals I see you all writing about to bring as gifts. I hope if I ever get meals delivered to me, you all are one the list!) I made my soup and I always throw in a green – often kale or swiss chard. This time I was using beets in the soup so I threw in the beet-greens as the green thing – hoping this wouldn’t be too strange for Maura or her family. I wrote a short menu card and delivered the food. Maura wrote me a thank-you note (as most people I bring meals to do – also impressive, and kind!) and said she was so thrilled that I had put beet-greens in the soup. According to her doctor or nutritionist, beet greens are very good to have when going through chemotherapy as they are high in potassium, on the things that chemotherapy decimates in the body. I love it when things like that work out – my unusual cooking had a very positive, unintended consequence!

    • Katherine, hi! I love this. “Kismet” or “serendipity” or whatever you want to call it – when you inadvertently give someone a favorite food or a special memory or a healthful bonus, it just adds something more to an already thoughtful gift. It’s like an extra magic spark or something.

      Not to mention, using the whole vegetable is a bonus! :)

  12. Hannah, we are honored to have made the blog! Polly and I were chatting at the pool today and saying a. How amazing your blog is and B. how much we miss you and she said, “that vodka sauce sounds great” and I said ooh it made the blog? :) and my dad won’t mind the tweaks one bit…he’s a guy who makes soup and when I ask for the recipe he says ah, I just threw in what looked good :). Xo

    • hm. I might need you to send me his soup ‘recipe’ ;) You guys totally made the blog, of course … best vodka sauce ever, and on our regular rotation. Love the new pool umbrella by the way! xo

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