Back in the 70s, food was much more bland than it is today, but thanks to my Italian grandfather, I was exposed to some great food before I even knew it was great. One day, my grandfather allowed me into the kitchen while he cooked. This was memorable because my ultra-tidy, non-Italian grandmother made sure kids were not allowed in the kitchen. I felt like I had been let into a secret cave and it was the first time I had ever heard my grandfather talk to me at great length… and in Italian. He was quiet and gentle, a man of slight build and kind of heart; a fish cutter by trade. My legs were out in front of me on the chair, so I couldn’t have been older than six or seven at the time. My nose and tongue tell me he was making this, because every time I prepare this dish, it brings back this memory in vivid detail.
My mother called it “Chicken Cacciatore” and made this often enough that it became one of my favorite meals. This was one of the first dishes I remember as a kid and I can still picture the saucy chicken mixed with spaghetti in the cornflower blue dish, climbing up onto a chair to look into the casserole to see what was cooking.
My grandfather was Tuscan so it was only natural that he would have introduced this classic Tuscan recipe to his family. Loosely translated as “hunter’s style”, it is a hearty meal that warms the bones. It presumably derived its name from the custom itself: after an early-morning rise and a long trek to go game-hunting, the weary hunter arrives back home for a hearty family lunch of this slow-cooked delicacy. It uses winter ingredients, things you’ll find in the market at this time of year along with preserved ingredients, so you won’t have to go to any trouble to turn out this amazing dish.
Pollo alla cacciatora
Keeping separate, finely chop:
2 medium carrots, peeled
3 celery stalks, white parts removed
2 large onions
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Cut into cubes:
150 gr./5.5 oz. pancetta
Season with salt and pepper:
6-8 chicken leg quarters, remove skin if desired
Prepare a large dutch oven (or high sided pan that has a cover) by heating the surface over high heat. Lower heat, drizzle with olive oil and immediately place 2-3 pieces of chicken in skillet. Sear for 2 minutes each side or just until color has developed, adjusting heat so that the remnants on the bottom of the pan do not burn. Repeat the process in batches until all pieces have been seared. Remove to a platter.
Pour out any residual oil into a disposable container. Return pan to stove and cook over medium heat until translucent:
250 ml/8 oz. white wine (like a good-quality, inexpensive vino da tavola)
Scrape up the bits with a wooden spatula. Immediately pour contents into a bowl and reserve.
Return pan to stove to prepare the soffritto. Heat the surface of the pan over medium heat, drizzle with olive and add in stages the prepared chopped vegetables, starting with carrot. Cook each vegetable two minutes before adding the next vegetable. Once the garlic has been added, cook for an additional five minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the mixture has developed some color, remove to a plate.
Return pan to the stove. Cook over medium heat until golden color begins to develop:
2 T. tomato paste
Add in layers:
8 whole plum tomatoes, skins removed (or 800 grams/22 ounces preserved tomatoes)
reserved pancetta/wine stock
18 mushrooms, thickly sliced (preferably baby portobello or cremini mushrooms)
3 sprigs oregano
1 bay leaf
2 sage leaves
3 cups chicken stock, warmed
Continuing to cook until mixture bubbles slightly and turn heat to low. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes. At the 35′ mark, bring a large stockpot of water to boil. At the 45′ mark, remove the chicken carefully to a platter. Over a large bowl, pour the contents of the pan through a fine strainer. Pour the stock back into the pan and cook over medium heat until thickened, about 10-15 minutes. Reserve the solids along with the chicken.
Add to the boiled water and cook one minute less than the manufacture’s directions:
400 grams spaghettoni (or thickest spaghetti you can purchase)
2 tsp. coarse salt
Turn heat to low and place the solids back in the sauce and stir to combine. (If the chicken has gone cold, place chicken back in the pan to heat through and then remove to a warm platter.) Strain pasta and immediately turn out into the pan. Quickly toss the pasta to coat and turn out onto a large platter. Place the warm chicken quarters on top. Garnish with:
2 T. chopped parsely
Serve immediately with a bottle of pinot grigio and follow with a green salad finished with balsamico.
POINTERS FOR SUCCESS
•The soffritto (carrots, celery and onion) is the secret behind every good slow-cooked dish in la cucina italiana. This gives a tomato-based sauce its hearty texture and flavor and helps to flavor the meat in which it is cooked. The finished soffritto should not be watery and should have developed a slightly golden color and give off a sweet aroma.
•Two main differences exist with this recipe than with the traditional method. Excessive skin is removed before searing the meat and any residual oils are removed before deglazing the pan. This allows the sauce to not be over-saturated with heavier oils that create an undesirable appearance (but no less delicious taste) in the finished dish. By removing the extra oils, it results in a perfectly emulsified sauce which also happens to be lighter and more healthy.
•When frying chicken, adjust heat accordingly. All of the remnants that are left crispy on the bottom of the pan will play an important part in the flavor of the sauce. Be sure to not rush through this process.
•You can easily substitute chicken quarters (thigh and drumstick) for chicken thighs, though quarters give the finished dish a noticeably lighter flavor. If using thighs, figure 2-3 thighs per serving.
•This is one of those dishes I like to call “Forbidden Italian”, Italian dishes that have evolved through the Italian diaspora that Italians today would never dream of consuming, like grating cheese over dishes containing fish. Nowhere in Italy is this served together with pasta, so if you’re a purist, serve it as it is or go with polenta. Try it once served with spaghetti–as directed in the recipe. My grandfather used to serve it along with spaghetti at his house and my mother prepared it by combining the two in one. I find this a bit too watery so I reduce the sauce, producing a thick, glistening sauce that will no doubt cling to the pasta. Whatever the case, this is not done in Italy. I say they don’t know what they’re missing. (NB: To you purists, I dare you to try it. You won’t go to Italian food inferno, promise.)