Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chicken Cacciatore; 'Hunter Style'

A number of European culinary traditions have 'hunter style' dishes. 'Chasseur', meaning hunter in French, is attached to the name of several specialties. 'Bigos' is a Polish hunter's stew. 'Landjager' (country hunter) is a heavily smoked Bavarian 'hunter's sausage'. 'Jägermeister' (German for 'master hunter'), the herbal liqueur, became fashionable with young urbanites in the US, far from the fields and woods. Even the original name for the luscious steamed plum pudding my New England Irish mother made for Thanksgiving and Christmas was 'hunter's pudding'. Somehow, rustic dishes with hearty herbal flavors got attributed to hunters.

Chicken cacciatore, or more correctly 'pollo alla cacciatora' [ka chah tor' ah] (chicken in the style of the hunter), originally had some wild gathered ingredients, like dried forest mushrooms, juniper berries, and fresh herbs. The cooking method was also used for real game, like rabbit and venison, or even wild boar. But our hunter must also have done some of his hunting in the neighbor's garden, since tomatoes, carrots, onions, and celery are traditionally part of the sauce, along with wine.

When I was a kid, 'chicken cacciatore', as it was usually called, was more likely to be just chicken cooked up in the regular red sauce for spaghetti, with the chicken simply replacing the meatballs and Italian sausage. But, as the recipe below shows, the sautéed chicken can be much more interesting, and the sauce more in the background. The chicken can be accompanied by a pasta dressed lightly with fresh herbs and olive oil or with marinara sauce (see my blog posting of 8/7/06). Or it can go with fried potatoes, steamed potatoes, polenta, or lightly salted rice. A not too fancy dry red wine, like a red Zinfandel, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, or Chianti will go well with this. Serve a coarsely textured crusty bread, such as ciabatta, alongside the chicken to mop up the sauce.

The recipe will serve six.

Chicken Cacciatore Tim

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thigh (or 3 pounds thighs with skin and bones)
Salt and pepper for chicken plus more later
1 large carrot
1 large stick celery
1 medium-small onion
2 medium-large cloves garlic
1/2 pound mushrooms
1 cup diced, drained tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large bay leaf
1 teaspoon juniper berries (or 1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds or 2 extra bay leaves)
2-inch piece of fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup red wine (or beer)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley for garnish

If using boneless skinless thighs, cut them in half. If using whole chicken thighs, remove the skin and excess fat. Cut thighs in half, across the bone, using a cleaver or heavy knife. Set meat on a platter or cookie sheet and fairly generously salt and pepper it on both sides. Set it aside.

Peel and dice the carrot. Cut the celery in several long strips, then cut across into 1/4-inch dice. Peel, and coarsely chop the onion. (Alternatively, these vegetables can be coarsely chopped, separately, in a food processor.) Crush, peel, and mince the garlic. Rinse mushrooms, and cut off the bottom 1/8 inch of the stems. Slice the mushrooms 1/2-inch wide.

In a large Dutch oven or casserole, fry the carrot, celery, and onion with the olive oil over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently, until the vegetables are softened. Stir in the garlic, and fry half a minute, stirring. Add the chicken plus the bay leaves, juniper berries, rosemary, and black pepper, and fry quickly over increased heat, scraping the bottom of the pan frequently, until the outsides of the chicken are completely changed in color. Add the wine or beer plus a half teaspoon salt. Boil quickly for about two minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan frequently. Add the mushrooms, and cook for several minutes, until mushrooms begin to shrink. Stir in the tomatoes, and when the mixture boils, reduce the heat and simmer UNCOVERED for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time, until the chicken is becoming tender. Taste the sauce and add salt to taste -- you need to make the sauce slightly salty, since the chicken and mushrooms will soak more up.

When done, either serve it now, with the parsley stirred in just before serving, or cool, refrigerate, and reheat it before serving later. Stir in the parsley just before serving.

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