Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Recipe: Chicken Cacciatore

An Italian classic, Chicken Cacciatore is great for weekends when you can devote the time to cooking it slowly and gently. But if the urge strikes for a Tuesday, what the heck, crank up the temperature and eat in about 90 minutes.

As you may note if you continue reading this site, we always have a good supply of Italian gravy in the refrigerator, but this is a dish that needs to create its own sauce. We've tried a couple of times to make it with the gravy ("It'll be quicker that way!"), but you end up with a tasty 'chicken legs in tomato sauce' dish, not with cacciatore. To make dinner for two . . .

here's what you'll need . . .
2 or 3 chicken leg and thigh pieces (often called leg quarters)
2 28 oz. (or 3 16 oz.) cans tomatoes (the Italian plum type works best, and Pastene are the best of the best!)
1 carrot (thinly sliced)
1 stalk celery (if Cathy isn't looking) chopped (1/8” pieces)
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
fresh mushrooms (anywhere from 8 to a pound, depending on taste)
8 - 16 ripe olives, thickly sliced (about 3 slices per olive)
1/3 cup each diced red and green peppers
1 or 2 (or 12 . . .) garlic cloves, minced
1 or 2 Tsp. dried oregano (if you have fresh, chop it coarsely and use 2 tsp.)
½ tsp. basil
(optional pinch thyme)
(optional pinch rosemary)
(optional 1/8 tsp. marjoram)
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne
1 or 2 bay leaves
freshly ground (big chunks) black pepper (Tellicherry, of course)
pinch of coarse (kosher) salt
white wine
olive oil
maybe some dried cilantro to garnish (fresh, if you’ve got it!)

Chicken cacciatore ingredients
(Okay, okay, so I hadn't sliced the mushrooms yet . . .)

Here's how you do it.

Wash the chicken legs and rip off all the excess fat. Heat a large skillet over high heat. (If you cram them in, you may be able to get 3 or even 4 leg quarters into a 12" pan; if you need to cook more than that, you'll need two skillets.)

When the pan is hot, pour in 1 Tbsp. per leg of olive oil, swirl, and toss in the legs, skin side down. Now slap a spatter shield over that sucker. Swirl, jiggle and otherwise agitate the pan until things calm down a bit. Turn the heat down to medium, or maybe even lower, and cook the chicken until the skin turns a rich golden brown (about 10 minutes?). Turn the chicken over and give it another 5 - 7 minutes. (If the pan smokes, turn down the heat! You want to crisp up the outside of the chicken to seal in the juices if you can, but not to let any of it burn or blacken.)

Chicken cacciatore splatter shield

When you declare the chicken ‘browned,’ do what you can to rearrange the legs so the center area (or some area) of the skillet is open - you'll need the room for all the veggies that are about to come.

Next, toss in the carrots. Swirl, shake, toss and etc. until the carrots begin to turn that lighter, almost translucent color. Then toss in the onions. When they start to turn translucent and pick up some of the carrot color, toss in the celery. Stir, swirl, shake, etc. until the celery just begins to soften, then add the peppers and mushrooms. Again, swirl, stir, toss etc. until the mushrooms begin to darken. The idea is to get all these items started cooking, so you'll need to keep everything moving during this period. You don't want anything to "cook" thoroughly at this point.

Chicken cacciatore veggied

As soon as the mushrooms show some color, toss in the garlic. As soon as you can smell the garlic aroma, toss in the olives. Count to about 30 (keeping everything moving as best you can) and pour in a good slug of white wine. The spitting should calm down quickly and the wine should start to bubble and froth.

Now add the tomatoes. And, yes, if you can get them in your area, use Pastene . They are by far the best tasting, most consistently wonderful canned tomatoes available. In fact, check out all their products; I’ve yet to be disappointed in anything I’ve tried. Use the edge of your spatula to chop and dice and slice the tomatoes into chunks and pieces, and mix them up with all the other veggies in the pan.

Pastene tomatoes

Now, add all the herbs and spices (except the bay leaves) and mix everything up. Or don’t.

Chicken cacciatore sauce start

I keep going back and forth with this dish. If you want, try adding just the Tellicherry and the bay leaves. The salt is optional, too. Usually, canned tomatoes bring plenty of salt to any dish. But the Pastene seem pretty restrained, and this is a dish that wants a touch of an edge, so generally, I add a little salt. And sometimes, I put the whole spice rack in. Try it. All ways. It’s good no matter what . . .

OK. Whatever the state of your spicedness, rearrange the pan so the sauce-in-a-state-of-becoming mixture surrounds the chicken. Adjust the heat to a gentle simmer (if you were on medium, go to low or even less until everything settles down - you can always crank it up a bit later if you need to get it bubbling again.)

Chicken cacciatore simmers

When you've got a gentle simmer going, spoon the sauce over, atop, and around everything, stick the bay leaves in, and go relax. Every 15 - 20 minutes, spoon fresh sauce over everything and generally stir things up.

Chicken cacciatore cookin’

Continue to simmer the dish until "done," which could mean anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours from this point. The chicken should be nearly falling off the bone when done. Serve over wide egg noodles with a salad and some bread (and a ton of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, of course).

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