When we lived in China, there was this family, the Nichols, who invited us over to dinner after church one Sunday.

For us, invitations to Sunday dinner were pretty fantastic, especially near the beginning of our stay when we were still trying to figure out which way was up 😉  Loved getting to know all those good people, hearing their stories, and also, loved any tips I could gather about travel and food and schools and life in China.

This particular Sunday we were treated with this pasta that all of us fell head-over-heels in love with.  I was pretty sure I could drink that sauce it was so good.  So I took this horrible picture of the recipe:

And we have made it countless times since then.

We dubbed it “Nichol’s Pasta” because the Nichol family introduced us to that dreamy stuff.

I cannot believe I haven’t written up this recipe here yet, especially since every time I make it I’m trying to decipher the instructions from that dumb picture I took.  It’s a family recipe we’ll want to have forever so I figure I better put it here in the blog for easy look-up.

So, here we go.

I’m going to have “mini” Claire show us how it’s done (I obviously was going to try to write this up a long time ago, and took these pictures with good intentions back when Claire was like three feet shorter and practically a baby, but really probably only a year or so ago…that girl has grown like a WEED lately!)…there are some guest appearances of Grace as well.

Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola (or, “Nichol’s Pasta,” adapted from The Barefoot Contessa:)

1/4 c. olive oil
2 1/2 c. chopped Spanish onion (I use yellow or white…whatever I have on hand…about one large onion)
1 tbs. garlic (about three cloves)
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (more or less depending on how spicy you like it…I usually do a little less)
1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 c. vodka (anyone worried about using vodka for cooking, either of these cooking wines work really great)
2 (28-oz) cans of whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 lb. penne pasta
2 Tbs. chopped fresh oregano leaves (I often don’t have this, darn it, and although it’s definitely better with it, it is fine without at well)
1 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan cheese (I do it with or without this too)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat the oil and saute onions and garlic over medium heat until onions are translucent (about five minutes)

 (I told you, mini Claire, right?)

Add the red pepper flakes and dried oregano and cook for a minute or so more.

Add the vodka or cooking wine…

…and simmer for 5-7 minutes.

Using clean hands, crush each tomato into the pan:

(extra fun for kids to crush food with their bare hands

Add 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper.

Ok, once that is all mixed up you bake it in the oven for a while to let the flavors deepen.  You’re supposed to do it in an oven-proof pot like this:

But I didn’t have that little beauty for years.  I did this instead:

Covered with this:

…and it worked just fine.

Ok so the recipe wants you to bake that at 375 for an hour and a half.  That’s an awful lot of time that sometimes I have, and sometimes I don’t.  But do your best and it still works out just fine!

While it is cooking, cook the pasta according to package directions.

Once the sauce is cooked, you blend it up in the blender.  BE CAREFUL because it’s hot…and also because it has the potential to make a mess if you don’t put the lid on properly.  Ha!

Add the blended mixture back into the pot:

And put it back on the stove and add the heavy cream:

 Add the fresh oregano, 1 tsp. of salt, 1/2 tsp. pepper and simmer for a few more minutes.

Then you’re ready to serve it up.  Mix in the pasta, add Parmesan cheese and a little more fresh oregano to garnish and make it look extra pretty, and inhale it.

Believe me, you’ll want to!

And some day I’ll come back and add a beautiful finished-product picture right here 🙂

Thank you Nichol family for gifting us that recipe we love so much!