Why Hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, one man’s mad exploration for the Mystery of the Menus, a long-lost recipe for the perfect food. I’m your Nicholas Cage of culinary exploration, Jon O’Guin. Today’s post is the first Catastrophe for our second-ever themed month of Mash-Up May. And we’re opening with a doozy. Today is a mash-up of a mash-up: we’re combining Gordon Ramsey’s recipe for Bloody Mary Linguine with Penne alla Vodka. So let’s spice things up, and grab a little Russian Gut-Warmer, and see how it goes.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Bloody Marys (which, I checked, IS the correct plural. Thank you, Merriam-Webster.) are a fascinating drink to me. They (as with many things that started in bars) have very confused and disputed origins. The most popular, and somewhat attested origin goes like this: there was a bar in Paris named the New York Bar. It was called that, obviously, because it came from New York. Seriously, a guy liked a bar in New York so much that, when he moved to Paris, he had the bar dismantled, shipped to Paris, and re-built there. (This was a more common trick than you think, back in the day. TONS of castles, bars, ruins, etc have, over the years, had someone look at them and go “I like it…I’d just like it MORE on this other continent.”)
"I'm not saying they're not breath-taking, William. I'm just saying it's bit of a beastly trip to come see them! And the heat here is just abominable. I'm saying I'd like them more if they were, say, in Devon. A little weekend trip, see the Pyramids, get some cream, you know?"
The bar became quite popular around 1920, because of something called Prohibition: suddenly, all the Americans traveling abroad in Paris could drink in a bar just like they used to be able to back home! At the same time, the Russian Revolution had caused a lot of Russians to move to Paris. These two groups brought two important things with them: the American brought canned tomato juice (which at the time was called “tomato cocktail”, because it wasn’t enough we couldn’t drink alcohol, our V8 was laughing at us too), and the Russians brought vodka. A bartender there, Ferdinand Petiot, called “Pete” by most, spent a year tooling with various vodka cocktail ideas, and eventually tried the two together.
Now, here’s where things get weird: Pete says he invented the drink in 1921 at the New York Bar in Paris. He ALSO says he “invented it” in the 1930’s at the King Cole Room in New York. See, because of his success in Paris, Pete got snatched up by a New York hotel bar and immigrated to America. Not helping matters is the name: Pete says the original recipe was called “The Bucket of Blood”. He’s sure WHY he called it that: an American who was at the bar in Paris one evening mentioned it reminded him of his old girlfriend who danced at the Bucket of Blood club in Chicago. (Man, old Club names were pretty rad.) Then, when he came to the King Cole Room, he sold the drink as “The Red Snapper”.
Which is well-known as the Drunkest Fish in the Sea.
HOWEVER: Ferdinand says his “Red Snapper” was a tweak both his original drink, and another guy’s drink, “The Bloody Mary”. Pete says that he came to America, and found someone else making the “half vodka, half tomato juice” cocktail, which he had dubbed "the Bloody Mary"...after a friend said the drink reminded him of his old girlfriend named Mary who worked at the Bucket of Blood club in Chicago. Which means either a guy in New York and a guy in Paris served the same drink to the SAME GUY, or one of them is copying the other's story. Either way, Pete saw the other guy doing 'his' drink, and said, “You know, I always thought the drink needed a little more punch.” So he threw in salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne and lemon juice to create his new “Red Snapper”. People liked the punched up flavor, but preferred the other name, and supposedly that’s how we got to here.
The OTHER reason I find Bloody Marys fascinating is my own relationship to them. Vodka has never been my intoxicant of choice. No, I’m a man of darker liquors: Whiskey, rum, and tequila. Which is not to say that I dislike vodka, merely that, at an open bar, it would be notable if I ordered vodka-based beverages. Further, something about the cocktail itself didn’t “click” with me for several years. It was bitter, salty and savory, with tomatoes and weird gritty bits. And thinking back, I don’t know that I ever chilled the drink enough. I just tossed tomato juice in the fridge and expected that to be enough.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I had a Bloody Mary I really enjoyed. Which is not to bash anyone who made me one before, in case my drunken memory fails me: I remember being fine with several Bloody Marys in my younger years: never like, blown away, but accepting “this is a fine version of a drink I don’t enjoy.”
I can’t pinpoint for certain where or when it happened, but I’m pretty sure it was because of bacon. I believe someone served me one with a slice of peppered bacon in it, and that made it click for me: the smokiness added that little component I needed, and the bacon infused with the flavors was a delight. Since then, I’ve been much more pro-Bloody Mary. I’ve found that, for me, it NEEDS either a pickled element or a meaty one to offset the acidity of the tomatoes.
So, there I was, a couple months back, now onboard with Bloody Marys, when I found a YouTube Video. A YouTube video of a specific and somewhat niche appeal: I’m certain I’ve mentioned it before, but one chef I always like watching is Gordon Ramsay. BUT, and this is the crucial bit: I prefer him at home.
His home, of course. Mine isn't remotely ready for company of his caliber.
If you’ve only seen him on Hell’s Kitchen or Kitchen Nightmares, then you may be confused. “The man’s a slavering rage-beast of meme-generating take-downs and insults, Jon.” You point out. “That sounds like it would be horrible to watch him inflict on his family!” And you’d be right. But here’s the thing: Gordon’s only like that in professional kitchens. It’s a shift in his personality, brought on by his training and values. See, screwing up in a professional kitchen is, in his mind, basically incredibly rude. It’s an insult to the customer, to the rest of the kitchen crew, and to the people running the restaurant. Your mistake is holding up or destroying so many people’s hard work, and potentially ruining someone’s only joy of the day. Combine this with being trained in a very aggressive and demanding kitchen, and Gordon’s outbursts have context: They’re a way for him to vent his frustrations, and to remind you of the stakes.
Put another way: back when I talked about David Chang’s Momofuku, I noted that his Ramen bowls take FIFTY hours of prep to get all the ingredients ready and together, so you can assemble the bowl itself in 6 minutes. That bowl of soup costs $18. At one of Gordon Ramsay’s higher end restaurants, they currently serve a veal dish that costs $81. Now, imagine you saw someone handling a plate of food that took DAYS of labor, that costs more than people make in a day, and you saw someone fuck it up. They didn’t treat it with enough respect, and they’ve wasted not just the last 10 minutes of THEIR life, and yours, and the customer’s, but they’ve wasted those two days of effort the rest of the team put in. That’s…kind of infuriating, right?
"Your veal's so undercooked, it's still in the bull's balls!" kind of furious.
But at home, Gordon’s remarkably chill. He’s calm, relaxed, and kind of…bouncy. Like he’s excited to be able to play, rather than work. It’s like seeing your neighbor’s big, kind of scary dog rolling on his back in the grass, his big dumb mouth lolled open and panting in joy.
Anyway, I saw a YouTube video for “Grilled Lobster and Bloody Mary Linguine” and immediately went “Gross, lobster. But I’m definitely stealing that Pasta recipe! That’s such a cool use of the flavorings of Bloody Marys to make a cool tomato sauce!” And then, that decision made, I didn’t invest the effort into MAKING it, until I thought “I need some Mash-up dishes for May. Is there anything I’ve WANTED to make that I can finally tackle? Hmm. There’s that bloody mary pasta. Hey, isn’t there a pasta based on flavoring it with Vodka? Done and done.”
The Main Event
I’d cover the history of Pasta alla vodka, but…it basically doesn’t have one. It basically just showed up one day in the mid 1970’s, and no one can agree why or where. The premise of it is simple: the sauce is of cream and tomatoes, two ingredients you normally can’t mix very well, because the acid in the tomatoes causes the cream to curdle and separate. Vodka serves as the emulsifier, keeping the two from fighting. Italy had been doing a similar thing with Grappa, a grape-based brandy, for decades or even centuries.
Anyway, onto the main event. And, for a dish consisting of technically three dishes mashed into one, the preparation for this thing is pretty easy. It’s what I call a “dump” recipe: most of the steps consist of “Dump X into the pan. Wait a bit. Dump Y into the pan.” Now, as you may have forgotten me noting while I was licking Gordon Ramsey’s boots for a couple hundred words, I feel that a Bloody Mary needs a meaty or briny element. Also, since I had thrown the lobster out the window from Gordon’s recipe (a tragic mistake that caused a three-car pile-up, a 2-alarm fire, and the escape of a bus of inmates from a woman’s prison before all was said and done), that meant I was looking at a dinner recipe with no protein in it.
…Except, well, Penne alla vodka can be made with pancetta, which is basically Italian bacon. So why not just add some bacon to the recipe? Ties in with my preferred style of Mary, gets some (minor) meat on the plate, AND if I use pepper bacon, I can start layering the flavors we want from the get-go! So we did.
One of these strips is different, but I can't quite figure out how...
Now, my recipe was painstakingly developed over hours of research to optimize unity of form. By which, of course, I mean I took the first version of each recipe I found, and played a simple game of crossing off components I thought would substitute for each other. One thing I DID see, however, was that the recipe I was using for Penne alla vodka didn’t use diced tomatoes, but rather canned whole tomatoes. The authors (America’s Test Kitchen, because of course it was) drained the can, then pureed half of the tomatoes, and roughly chopped the other half. To which I said “Sounds like a plan, Stan, let’s dump these bad boys!” Unfortunately, since no one in the kitchen was named Stan, no one helped me as I dumped 2 cups of tomatoes into a 1-cup sieve.
I then asked someone else to take a picture of it, which was a second stupid error in a matter of seconds. Seriously, what kind of shot framing is this?
Was I mocked for this failure? Yes. Roundly. Everyone in the room gave me crap for it. Which I thought was a little overboard, but whatever. Once my tomato tumble was sorted out, the recipe was pretty simple. As noted, it mostly consisted of “add ingredients to pan, cook a bit, add more ingredients” In our case, we took the bacon fat and fried some red onion in it. Why red? I don’t know. Gordon Ramsey did it, and it honestly felt more “bloody Mary”…y, than a white onion. Sauté the onion until softened and lightly golden brown, and then add some minced garlic. Add some Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce, as well as a little dab of tomato paste, celery salt, and a sprinkle of sugar.
Then it’s time to hit the pan with some vodka. And this is where we went with a bit of a flourish. See, my family and I are Spirits Club members of a local distillery. So every 3 months, we get three bottles of alcohol. And the distillery recently partnered with a Seattle company that makes Bloody Mary Seasoning Mixes. The result is, somewhat predictably, vodka with Bloody Mary Seasoning pre-built in.
I originally took a picture of the other side of this bottle, but it turns out "bottle of yellow liquid without explanatory label" isn't very visually appealing.
It’s a quite savory blend, I can tell you, and it’s therefore a little difficult to work with. The distillery has really only come up with two drinks for it that aren’t just Bloody Marys, and one of them is “A Bloody Mary, but with Clamato juice instead of Tomato.” However, for our purposes, it’s a bit of an easy addition: if we’re pouring vodka into a Bloody Mary Pasta, why not use vodka MADE for Bloody Marys?
Then you toss in the tomatoes I earlier made a mess of, and simmer for 10-15 minutes. While that’s going, you probably want to cook the pasta. We used Penne, because, you know, Penne alla Vodka. And here’s an important point: the heavy cream for the pasta sauce is supposed to go in for only a minute, so try and get the sauce fully flavored before the cream hits it. We added some Bloody Mary Seasoning Mix, and a little more vodka, and tossed the bacon back in, and tinkered with the recipe in a half-dozen little ways before we mixed it up and served it.
A dash of this, a pinch of that, a whisp of spiders...
How was it? Good. Really good. And also a disappointment. See, we didn’t balance the flavor around the knowledge that we’d be adding cream, so the flavors came out muted. If you didn’t KNOW that it was a Bloody Mary pasta, I don’t think you’d ever guess it. It would just be a nice pasta sauce. Which it was! It was tasty and warming, it just didn’t convey the ‘Bloody Mary’ vibe we were looking for. So when/if you make it yourself, I’d advise you to over-season the mixture before the cream hits. Make it a little stronger than you think is ‘right’, and it should be fine. But, overall, I’d still call it a success. And, as a small bonus, it’s actually a pretty cheap and easy dinner, since it doesn’t use very much meat! Try it yourselves, and see what you can make.
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THURSDAY: MAYBE WE DO A BLOODY MARY TASTE-TEST, IF I CAN GET LITERALLY ANYONE TO DRINK BLOODY MARYS WITH ME.
NEXT MONDAY: A BIRTHDAY PRESENT FOR MY BROTHER, WE MAKE A SURPRISINGLY SOLID MONGOLIAN BEEF RECIPE, AND THEN MAKE ADEQUATE BURRITOS OUT OF IT.
Bloody Mary Penne Alla Vodka
4-5 strips of peppered bacon
1 (28 oz) can whole tomatoes
1 red onion, peeled and finely diced
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
2 tbsps Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp Hot Sauce, such as Tabasco or Frank’s Red Hot
1 tbsp tomato paste
½ tsp celery salt
1 tsp white sugar
A pinch of red pepper flakes
1/3 cup vodka, preferably D’s Seasoned
½ cup heavy cream
1 lb penne pasta
Basil or Parsley for garnish
1. Fry the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat. While bacon fries, drain the can of tomatoes, reserving the liquid. Chop half the tomatoes roughly, in about ½” pieces, and puree the other half.
2. Once bacon is crisp, remove from the pan, and drain fat if needed. (you want about 1 tbsp of bacon fat left) Then, sauté the onion in the bacon fat. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until lightly golden. Add the garlic, and sauté another 2 minutes.
3. Add the tomato paste, and let cook in the middle of the pan for 30 seconds or so, before stirring into the onions and garlic. Add the Worcestershire, hot sauce, sugar, celery salt, and red pepper flakes. Stir to combine.
4. Add the vodka, and simmer, stirring vigorously to deglaze the pan. Add tomatoes and reserved liquid, and simmer 10-15 minutes. Adjust flavors as desired (we used a bottle of Bloody Mary Seasoning rather than adding the various components one at a time).
5. While sauce simmers, boil pasta to roughly 1 minute before package directions. Drain, reserving 1-2 tbsps of pasta water.
6. Add Cream to the sauce, and simmer 1 minute. Then, add pasta and reserved pasta water to pan, and toss to combine. Let cook 1-2 minutes, and serve hot, topping with shredded parsley or basil.