Penne Alla Vodka with Chicken
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My first experience with Penne alla Vodka with Chicken was cooking a “gourmet” meal for a group of college friends in our dorm’s basement kitchen. Looking back, I’m not sure which impresses me more: our resourcefulness (that kitchen was equipped with little beyond a hot pot and a few forks someone had “donated” from the dining hall) or our audacity to make a vodka sauce on a campus that doesn’t allow vodka. After one bite, we felt validated. The pasta tasted glorious and was worth the risk.
While I don’t remember anything else we ate—my hunch is the full menu included the penne alla vodka with chicken, wine (from a box), and cake (also from a box)—penne alla vodka has been one of my favorite comfort food dishes since. It’s not one that I make often, but every time I eat it, I’m transported back to that fun, silly night and the joy of good company.
If you aren’t familiar with penne alla vodka or are wondering how to make a vodka sauce, it’s a delightful, rich mix of crushed tomatoes and cream. As its name suggests, penne alla vodka is also made with vodka, which is cooked down and keeps the acidity of the tomatoes from causing the cream to break and separate. This is culinary science at its most delicious.
The count of classic penne alla vodka with chicken calories typically puts it on the “special indulgence” list. I couldn’t resist the urge to see if I could take the classic comfort food and make it better for you.
SUCH A HIT! This is one of the lightened-up recipes I’ve been proudest of lately, and I can’t wait for you to try it.
The Best Penne alla Vodka with Chicken Recipe (Done Lighter!)
A few of the skinny swaps in this Penne alla Vodka with Chicken recipe were simple, such as replacing the regular penne with whole wheat penne for an extra boost of nutrients, fiber, and protein. The largest challenge (and thus the one I most needed to tackle) was what to do with the full cup plus of heavy cream called for in many classic penne alla vodka recipes.
My solution? A “cream” made of ground almonds and Almond Breeze almondmilk Original Unsweetened.
Almondmilk has long been my go-to ingredient to give sweet and savory recipes like this Healthy Chicken Pot Pie and this Creamy Polenta richness without adding excess calories. Combined with the bulk and healthy fats in the ground almonds, it creates the most incredible “cream” that once stirred into the vodka sauce is a dead-ringer for the Italian classic.
As an additional bonus, this recipe is entirely dairy free. You can add a bit of Parmesan if that isn’t a concern; we opted for nutritional yeast, which is loaded with nutrients and has a similar “cheesy” taste to Parmesan.
This recipe is now on our favorites list. Ben took it to work every morning we had it in the refrigerator (the surest sign of his recipe approval). It makes a big batch and reheats well, so it’s a great recipe to make at the beginning of the week, then keep on hand for fast, healthy meals all week long.
Penne alla Vodka with Chicken Recipe Variations
- Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Broccoli: Stir steamed broccoli into the pasta at the end.
- Penne alla Vodka with Chicken and Shrimp: After sautéing the chicken in Step 2, sauté 1 pound of peeled and deveined shrimp; stir it in with the chicken at the end.
- Vegetarian Penne alla Vodka: Simply omit the chicken! Thanks to the almonds, this pasta recipe is still plenty satisfying without it.
What to Serve with Penne alla Vodka with Chicken
- A green salad, such as this Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad
- Sautéed Zucchini or a similar sautéed veggies
- Oven Roasted Brussels Sprouts
- 3/4 cup raw almonds soaked in water for at least 4 hours or up to 10 hours (if you have a high-powered blended such as a Vitamix, you can skip the soak)
- 3/4 cup Almond Breeze almondmilk Original Unsweetened
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil divided
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt divided
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup vodka
- 1 large yellow onion diced
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 pound whole wheat penne or similar whole wheat pasta
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast or Parmesan optional—use nutritional yeast to make dairy free or omit
- Thinly sliced fresh basil or chopped fresh parsley
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drain the almonds, then place them in a blender with the almondmilk. Puree until smooth, thick, and creamy. Depending upon your blender, this may take several minutes and you may need to stop and scrape down the blender a few times. The mixture will be the consistency of a paste and will have brown flecks of almond skin in it. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a very large, deep skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium high heat. Once hot, add the chicken. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper. Sauté until lightly browned on all sides and cooked through, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove to a plate and set aside. Make sure you have the vodka measured and on hand.
To the same pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Let warm up, then add the onion and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook until the onion begins to soften, about 3 to 4 minutes, then add the garlic and cook just until fragrant, about 30 seconds, being careful not to burn it.
Carefully add the vodka (be especially careful if your stove has an open flame). Scrape to deglaze the pan, then let the vodka cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes. Bring this sauce to a steady simmer, then reduce the heat to a low simmer over medium low, adjusting the heat as needed so that the sauce simmers gently (you want it to continue to reduce but not bubble aggressively). Let simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the blended almond mixture until the sauce is smooth and the almond mixture is well incorporated (the sauce will turn a light, creamy red color). Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
While the sauce simmers, cook the pasta in the boiling water to al dente, according to package instructions. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, then drain the pasta and immediately add it to the sauce. Toss to coat the pasta, then stir in the chicken, adding a bit of the pasta cooking liquid to loosen the sauce as needed. Stir in the nutritional yeast. Serve hot, sprinkled with basil or parsley.
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