On Your Table: Going for more flavor, not just more food

By Cathy Branciaroli, Food Correspondent, The Times

Call it by any name, Chicken Cacciatore makes for a great winter dish.

At this time of year, many folks are focused on how to eat less. For myself I’m focused on consuming more flavorful, more comforting and more satisfying food.  This doesn’t necessarily mean more food, just better. I suppose this is counterintuitive thinking, but it’s comfort food season. And you can satisfy both the need for healthfulness and the need for flavor in many a comforting dish. Take chicken cacciatore. 

Whatever you call it, pollo alla cacciatora, chicken cacciatore or hunter’s stew, this classic Italian dish suits perfectly for a wintry Sunday’s main meal. Essentially this is pan-seared chicken slowly braised in an intense wine sauce flavored with garlic and fragrant herbs.

Straightforward yes? But maybe not so much.

Opinions differ on which ingredients are essential in this simple rustic dish and all are fiercely held. Like many traditional Italian foods, preparations of this dish are regionally driven and in addition each household proudly serves its own slight variation. The result?  Hundreds of versions, not counting the Italian-American twists.

For instance, to be truly authentic in Abruzzo, my family’s home region, mushrooms are a must along with a regional favorite, hot peppers, and red wine. Some tomato sauce or paste is allowed. But in Rome, one would never prepare the dish with tomatoes and white wine is used. Across the regions, anchovies, capers, olives or juniper berries can be included for flavor but use of these vary across renditions.  Even chicken is not a given, since rabbit or other game can be the primary ingredient. In the US, recipes universally feature a stew-like tomato-based sauce and rosemary usually isn’t included as it is in Italy. There seems to be no correct recipe – only tasty ones.

What we apparently can all agree on is that the dish most likely originated in mountainous areas of Central Italy as peasant food, the celebrated cucina povera.  It would have been assembled based on the outcome of the hunt, hence Hunter’s Chicken, and what was easily available. Ingredients like quail, pheasant or rabbit were hunted. Mushrooms were foraged in the forest. Tomatoes, garlic and vegetables were grown on the family’s ground. Wine was homemade or easily available.

My take in preparing it is Abruzzese at heart with a few elements borrowed from other renditions such as a hearty tomato sauce and vegetables.

Is it “authentic”? Well, pretty much. And the result satisfied my quest for tastiness in comfort food. To me, this is a must-have winter dish.  Hope you’ll agree.

Chicken Cacciatore (Pollo alla Cacciatora)

One 3-lb cut up chicken or 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
¼ cup olive oil
1 medium onion cut into slices
½ pound assorted mushrooms, sliced
1 large carrot cut into 1-in pieces
1 rib celery cut into 1-in pieces
1 whole dried Italian hot pepper (diavoletto)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced into batons
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 ½ cups dry red wine
1 tbs tomato paste
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes drained
Salt (may need ~1 tsp in total) and ground pepper to taste
Optional – ½ cup chicken broth if the dish seems too dry

1 tbs chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large skillet over medium-high heat.  Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season with salt & pepper.  Add chicken pieces skin side down, making sure not to crowd them in the pan.  This may require browning in batches.  Brown for 5-6 minutes per side.  Transfer to a plate and discard skins.

Drain off most of the oil, leaving enough to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add onions, carrots, celery and whole pepper.   Sprinkle with ½ tsp salt.  Cook under medium heat, stirring occasionally till vegetables are softened, ~ 5 minutes.  Add garlic and rosemary and cook for additional 1 minute.

Deglaze the pan with the red wine.  Add mushrooms and cook down till softened.   Stir in tomato paste then add diced tomatoes. Add chicken pieces and their pan juices on top of the vegetables, nestling them on top.  There should be just enough liquid to just cover the chicken parts.  If needed add the broth.

Cook covered for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally for doneness.  Test seasoning.  Serve hot, garnishing with the parsley.  Serve over polenta.

Bring 4 cups water to a boil, whisk in 1 cup cornmeal to insure no lumps form.  Add ½ tsp salt and cook for 2 minutes.  Reduce heat and cook on low-medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Additional water or broth may need to be added to keep a creamy consistency.  Add 1-2 tbs butter at the end for finishing.

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