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Helping Make Penne Vodka For Our Chosen Family

It's no secret that food and family are practically synonymous and a home-cooked meal makes it all the more special.

Amid a chaotic birthday weekend, including my close friends Nana, who accompanied me to a concert and previously featured artist Jay Valeyo sleeping over at my apartment and a beach day with my parents and siblings, I decided it was the perfect time to try something new.

Growing up Hispanic, George and I learned how food can unite people and symbolize affection and love. Sitting around the dinner table and eating a home-cooked meal together as a family was a big deal for us. With some of our closest friends coming over for a significant milestone, like me turning 25, replicating that nostalgic moment with our chosen family felt important.

However, it's not the same as when we were kids. We can't just present any food to our friends and expect them to eat it like our parents did us. Growing up differently, they have different palates and diets. More specifically, Jay is a vegan, and that's a diet George and I are unfamiliar with prepping, cooking, or eating. Still, he is like family, so despite the challenges, feeding him a home-cooked meal and displaying that sense of camaraderie and affection is important to us.

As part of my birthday weekend, I get to choose the meals, and I love pasta. After researching pasta dishes that easily translate from a non-vegan recipe to a vegan one, the best option I found was penne vodka.

George and I went shopping for dry pasta and discovered that most dry pasta is already vegan. I guess that dry pasta usually has a long shelf life, and using eggs would prevent that.

George loosely followed a Food Network recipe for the non-vegan version and a food blogger's vegan recipe.

I would say George boiled the water and cooked according to the box instructions, but I don't think we have ever read the instructions. Instead, we add the amount of salt the ancestors tell us to and boil the pasta until it hits our unclear definition of al dente.

I chopped up a quarter of the oddly ginormous and probably steroid-grown yellow onion we bought from Costco. Meanwhile, George opened a can of diced tomatoes using the electric can opener he hates and blended it with tomato paste.

He sweated the onions in extra virgin olive oil, added the garlic, and cooked until fragrant. He poured the vodka and let it simmer to cook off the alcohol. He added a bunch of seasonings; then put some sauce aside in the blender.

I soaked a quarter cup of salted cashews in a bowl of boiling water for a few minutes. Completely confused about how cashews turn favored tomato sauce into a creamy vodka sauce, I added the cashews into the blender and blended until smooth. Despite what the recipe said, I was audibly shocked when the sauce became creamy. I tried it and could taste the cashews, but I would have never known if someone hadn't told me it was dairy-free.

cashews soaking in a bowl of boiling water

George mixed the vegan sauce with some pasta portioned out for Jay, seasoned it some more, then covered it to ensure no dairy or meat tools were accidentally used in this pot.

Then, George poured the heavy cream into our version of the sauce and cooked until creamy. He mixed it with the leftover pasta and seasoned it some more. In a separate pan, he cooked ground beef with all the seasoning the ancestors told him to use, and soon enough, dinner was ready.

Finally, the four of us sat down and ate around the dinner table, talking and laughing together like a small family of friends who have known and cared for each other for over a decade.

three plates of penne vodka and ground beef and a a plate of vegan penne vodka

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