Penne with a kick

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Penne in vodka with chicken, basil & capers

Vodka for most of my peers is a rough, tough flavourless drink designed to get you motherless in the shortest possible time. Curiously, things are different in Russia. My good friend and former colleague Erina, a senior Moscow historian and academic, now lives in SA, and at her dinner parties vodka takes the place of wine at the table. The effect of this is to transform dining into something else entirely. You will be amazed to discover that this writer became, very briefly, an acrobatic Cossack dancer between courses. Circus acts aside, vodka plays a real part in the preparation and flavouring of food. I guess the action is largely catalytic, given the total absence of inherent flavour. Here’s a boozy recipe for you to try …

Get a large pan of lightly salted water boiling on the hob. While this is going on, fillet the chicken breasts and cut them into strips. Heat a little extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and quickly fry the chicken strips until they are cooked right through. Remove and reserve in a covered bowl. Dump the used olive oil, wipe the pan clean with a paper towel and put it back on the hob.

Add the 125g butter and let it melt at a low heat. When liquid, return the cooked chicken pieces to the pan, and mix in the tomato concentrate. Stir well to evenly distribute the ingredients. Now tear most of the basil leaves by hand (retaining a few for garnish) and add them to the pan with the capers. Season lightly with salt and freshly ground black pepper and let the contents cook for 10 minutes. A t this point, add the penne to the pan of boiling water and let them cook for as long as the instructions suggest on the packet, or until they are cooked to your liking.

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 Test from time to time – ideally the penne should offer some resistance to your teeth and not be cooked to a mush. Meanwhile, back in the frying pan, add the cream a little at a time to avoid curdling, then pour in the vodka. Stirring all the time, cook until the vodka has evaporated. Drain the cooked penne and tip into a large serving bowl. Pour the sauce from the frying pan over, mixing gently so that the penne become coated.

You will note that the penne are hollow, with a grooved outer surface. This cunning piece of Italian design ensures that the pasta picks up and retains huge quantities of sauce. I mmediately prior to serving, garnish each plate with a leaf or two of fresh basil. And finally, a shot of Stolichnaya, fresh from the deep freeze, will bring out the dancing Cossack in all your diners! – David Basckin |fw

To make penne in vodka with chicken, basil and capers for four, you will need:

150ml Stolichnaya vodka (yes, brands do matter)

125g butter
250g chicken breasts
30ml tomato concentrate
Handful of fresh basil leaves
 75ml thick cream
15ml to 30ml capers
500g penne Extra-virgin olive oil