Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

Weekend Cookbook Challenge—The Beginning


This was my first ever cookbook. My lonesome self picked up a copy after watching this guy named Jeff Smith and his HOTTIE little chef-friend Craig cook on PBS. My family and I had just moved to Salt Lake. I had no friends. So I played in the kitchen.

I look back on The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian with more fondness than any of my yearbooks smattered with "Hey Q.T.! Have an AWESOME summer. Let's keep in touch!" This book was my friend. I sat with it every Saturday, keeping up with the episodes cooking polenta, rolling out pasta, and kneading dough. I made notes on it. It gave me papercuts. But most importantly, it gave me something to do. Something I really wanted to do. I wanted to be part of the Frugal Gourmet World.

Who the hell wouldn't want to eat and celebrate your way through Italy? Especially with that Fun-Size Chef Assistant Craig Wollam. He was totally anal. And sometimes on air, you could see him get annoyed with our culinary Methodist minister. But for a 14-year old who's other major crush was Bono, he was total eye-candy.

Whenever Jeff Smith took a sip of red wine, I'd micmic with a sip of Cranberry Crystal Light out of Mom's fancy glassware (the rents didn't drink wine). When Craig made Filled Rolled Bread, I made Filled Rolled bread. I'd imagine myself as the final component to a Frugal Gourmet Trio. I'd stir things in the sautepan and banter with Jeff in between making out with Craig in the pantry.


For a teenager, I became a bad ass in the kitchen. Making my own lemon olive oil with the Costco extra-virgin and insane amounts of lemon rind. Mom's sesame oil stood next to the big marinating tub, along with my balsamic vinegar. I tried just about every recipe. And some, like the Sicilian Tomato Sauce, are still part of my weekend cooking ritual.


When I wanted to make Penne alla Vodka, very-very-nice-and-didn't-know-any-better Mom took me to the liquor store. She looked for Dad's scotch while I scoped out the vodka. A store clerk suspiciously eyed me in my Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt. "How old are you?" he asked.

"14. Hey, do you know if this bottle is good in sauce?"
"Excuse me?"
"Tomato sauce. I need some for pasta."
"You're not supposed to be in here. State law," points to a a very official looking sign.
"But I'm going to make pasta. I need something with flavor."
"Flavor? Young lady, underage people who look for vodka want it because they'll get drunk. Vodka doesn't have flavor."

Au contraire Mr. State Liquor Store Man. Granted, it was another two years before I could get my hands on half a cup of vodka for the tomato sauce. But it was worth the wait. The tangy tomato mellowed out. Sexed up. Finally, I added the penne, dripping hot from the colander, to the pan. "You added the booze to the sauce?" my new friend (and vodka-source) asked. "You're not going to drink any?" "Nah," I replied. THAT'S how much of a nerd I was. Didn't even think of dipping into underage drinking fun. But I made a mean penne alla vodka.


Penne alla Vodka adapted from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian
The original calls for crunchier onions, but I found that cooking the onion and garlic together got the desired texture. Don't bother with the Belvedere. You gotta have the cheap sort of liquor—the stuff that'll burn off esophogeal linings and put hair on your chest. Don't worry—there's only 1/2 cup for 6 servings. Cook it out if flavor is too strong.

2 tablespoons olive oil * 1 medium yellow onion, diced * 2 cloves of garlic, minced * 1/2 white wine OR chicken stock * 1/2 cup of cream * 1 cup crushed tomatoes OR Sicilian Tomato Sauce * salt and pepper to taste * 1/4 cup grated Parmesan * 3/4 pound penne, cooked * 1/2 cup vodka

Heat the olive oil in a sautépan. Add the onion and garlic and cook until translucent. Add the wine/broth, cream, and tomatoes to the pan. Stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Stir in the vodka. Quickly toss in cooked pasta and grated cheese. Serve immediately. NOTE: Lightweights like me may start to feel the effects of penne alla vodka ONLY after attempting to eat the WHOLE PAN...which I don't recommend. Unless you're drunk already.

*Thanks to Ali and Sara for the first Weekend Cookbook Challenge.

UncategorizedVanessa Chang