Growing up as a youngster in Long Island, family gatherings happened often and typically included chaffing dishes full of Italian specialties. Given the chance, I would sneak bites from the penne alla vodka tray, seduced by the potential that something interesting could happen. I had no idea as a child what sort of fun I was after, only that the dish of creamy, tomato, booze-spiked pasta seemed like forbidden fruit — an adult-only fare that I couldn’t resist.

Far from an easy buzz, cooking with clear spirits like vodka imparts a subtle flavor to recipes in the way of botanical notes, or lends a gentle bite that is similar to acid but far less bracing. While brown liquor and wine hint at sugar and caramelization, clear spirits provide clarity to dishes and counterbalance richness.

With cooking, vodka has no distinctive flavor and can be used for its pungent character, helping to brighten a dish. This brightening aspect makes vodka an excellent choice for sauces, pasta or poultry. Use vodka as a substitute for vermouth in any recipe, which will temper any sweetness and showcase the food’s natural flavor. Try the vodka from Seattle’s Batch 206 Distillery, a honey-toned corn-based spirit that brings both texture and clarity to this simple dish.

Herby Pasta with Clams and Vodka Sauce
Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
5 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 shallot, finely minced
4 slices prosciutto, torn into pieces
¼ cup Batch 206 Distillery vodka
1 pound small clams, brushed and cleaned
4 portions pasta (one small box)
½ cup mixed herbs, parsley, dill, mint, celery leaves
Parmesan, for garnish

Boil a pot of salted water for the pasta.

In large sauté pan with high sides, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted and starting to bubble, add the garlic and shallot. Sauté until cooked and starting to brown at the edges, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the prosciutto and let sit, stirring only occasionally, allowing it to get brown and crispy, about 4 minutes.

When the mixture starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, deglaze with the vodka and scrape up any brown bits. Add clams to the pan and cover, steaming until the clams are just opening, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

While clams are steaming, drop the pasta into the pot of boiling water and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. A minute before the pasta is ready, put the sauté pan with the clams back over high heat. It will start to sizzle almost immediately. Pour a cup of the pasta water into the sauté pan and stir continuously.

When the pasta is al dente, drain and add to the sauté pan. Cook until the pasta water starts to evaporate and bubble at the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes. Add the greens and herbs, and toss to wilt. Remove from the heat immediately and spoon four equal portions into shallow bowls; shave Parmesan over the top, if desired, and serve.