Over the many years I have been shuffling around in a kitchen, I have taken considerable delight in perfecting recipes. Many recipes, do not require this treatment, but in my experience in preparing one recipe following different instructions, I inevitably spend an afternoon doing a bit of research, and compiling my own recipe from several sources. It must be the academic in me. I am not good at improvising a recipe… nor am I good at memorizing one either. So it will come as no surprise that I collect recipes on my computer, from my cookbook library and from online sources. I admit that even today when just about everything is available on line, I still like to buy cookbooks.
Take Chicken Cacciatore for instance (or its French derivative Poulet Chasseur). I doubt that hunters in Italy or anywhere else for that matter make sport of shooting chickens in the barnyard, so the Cacciatore recipes were probably intended for rabbit or hare. No doubt the intrepid hunter (think Elmer Fudd) would often come back empty-handed, so a chicken had to do in a pinch.
Of course, you can shoot birds too, and I did find a Renaissance recipe for pigeons. It is in Lorenza de’Medici’s Florentines, a lovely little book I previously mentioned (see Food, Music and Silence – 18 January 2015). Given the recipe, I am inclined to see it as a precursor to Chicken Cacciatore. Read on, and you will see why.
Palombe alla Ghiotta (Wild Pigeons Stewed in Red Wine)
3 wild pigeons or squab
1 litre (1 quart) red wine
3½ fl. oz vinegar
4 garlic cloves
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 small bunch of fresh sage, tied together
1 small onion, quartered
100 gr prosciutto
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 anchovy fillets in oil
1 tbsp capers in vinegar, rinsed
1 lemon wedge
1 thin slice of bread
salt and pepper
Clean the pigeons, leaving heads and feet on, if still attached. Place in a flameproof casserole with all the other ingredients and cook over low heat for about 1½ hours. Take the pigeons from the casserole and discards heads and feet, if necessary. Halve the pigeons lengthwise and reserve. Continue to heat the sauce for about another hour until it thickens. Remove the rosemary and sage and purée the sauce in a food mill or food processor. Return the pigeon halves to the casserole with the sauce, reheat for 10 minutes and serve.
I assume this would serve 2 or 3 people partial to pigeon. I also assume Signora de’Medici can get pigeons at the market where she lives. Unfortunately, I have never seen a pigeon at the local supermarket, let alone one with its head and feet still attached. Squab (which she suggests as a substitute) is just as difficult to find. In Canada, I suspect grouse could be used. You would have to know how to cook wild meat (it usually has to cook much longer than domestic meat!) as it is very lean, and might be inclined to be a bit tough if the bird is an older one. The recipe she proposes cooks them for 1½ hours, so that should do for any old bird. Apparently the meat should be falling off the bone.
Back to Chicken Cacciatore. Everyone assumes tomatoes are an essential part of the dish, but since tomatoes (from the Americas) were not commonly used in Italian cooking until the late 18th century, any old and authentic recipe for the dish would not use tomatoes. Knowing this, most sources seem to suggest that the dish is really a hunter’s stew, probably made with hare or rabbit, or some kind of feathered game, using wine or vinegar for a sauce, and herbs one can find in the Italian countryside, such as rosemary, sage and thyme.
In my cookbook collection, there are two notable recipes for Chicken Cacciatore which (almost) eschew tomatoes. The first one, closest in intent is the one provided by Giuliano Bugialli. We have made this one often, and I can vouch that it is delicious. Here it is.
Pollo alla Cacciatore (Tuscan)
1 chicken (3 lbs)
1 Tbs fresh rosemary leaves
10 leaves sage, fresh
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled
½ cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
pinch hot pepper flakes
½ cup dry red wine
1 bay leaf
2 Tbs tomato paste (doppo concentrato)
1 ½ cups hot water
1. Cut the chicken into 16 pieces (spezzatini); coarsely chop rosemary, sage and garlic.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large casserole, preferably terra-cotta, and when it is hot, add the chopped ingredients and sauté gently until lightly golden (10 to 12 minutes). Add the chicken pieces and sauté them over moderately high heat until golden all over (about 15 minutes) then add salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes.
3. Lower the heat and pour in the wine. Let it evaporate very slowly (about 10 minutes), then add the bay leaf, tomato paste, and ½ cup of hot water. Cover and let simmer very slowly for 20 minutes, adding more hot water if needed.
4. At this point, the chicken should be cooked, and there should be a small quantity of thick sauce. Remove the bay leaf and transfer the chicken pieces and sauce to a serving dish. Serve hot. Serves 4.
(It tastes even better reheated!)
Nutrition (per serving): 2322 calories, 1718 calories from fat, 193.7g total fat, 679.5mg cholesterol, 6063.4mg sodium, 137.8mg potassium, 16.9g carbohydrates, <1g fiber, <1g sugar, 130.5g protein.
Source: Buggiali, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking
The second recipe is from the venerable Time-Life Foods of the World series, The Cooking of Italy. This particular book was authored by Waverley Root (1903-1982). In it, his recipe for Polla alla Cacciatore is from the south of Italy, and surprisingly still has no tomatoes in it. I have been making this at least once of month for decades now, and it is still very satisfying.
Pollo alla Cacciatore
2½ lbs. chicken, cut up
Freshly ground pepper
2 Tbs olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped onions
1 tsp finely chopped garlic
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbs wine vinegar, preferably white
1/2 cup chicken stock, fresh or canned
1/2 tsp dried oregano, crumbled
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs slivered black olives, preferably Mediterranean style
3 flat anchovy fillets, rinsed in cold water, dried and chopped
1. Wash the chicken quickly under cold running water and pat the pieces dry with paper towels. Season the pieces with salt and a few grindings of pepper.
2. In a heavy 10 – 12 inch skillet, heat the olive oil until a haze forms over it. Brown the chicken a few pieces at a time, starting them skin side down and turning them with tongs. Transfer the browned pieces to a plate.
3. Pour off almost all of the fat from the skillet, leaving just a thin film on the bottom. Add the onions and garlic and cook them over moderate heat, stirring constantly, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are lightly coloured.
4. Add the wine and vinegar and boil briskly until the liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup. Pour in the chicken stock and boil for 1 or 2 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping in any browned bits that cling to the pan. Return the browned chicken to the skillet, add the oregano and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat and simmer, basting occasionally. In about 30 minutes, the chicken should be done; its juice will run clear when a thigh is pierced with the tip of a sharp knife.
5. To serve, arrange the pieces of chicken on a heated platter. Discard the bay leaf and boil the stock left in the skillet until it thickens slightly and has the intensity of flavour desired. Stir in the black olives and anchovies and cook the sauce for a minute or so longer. Pour the sauce over the chicken.
Nutrition (per serving): 147 calories, 78 calories from fat, 8.8g total fat, <1mg cholesterol, 912.7mg sodium, 323.8mg potassium, 4.7g carbohydrates, <1g fibre, 2g sugar, 6.7g protein.
The fact that it uses white wine suggests a northern origin, but then I will not question Mr. Root’s knowledge or authority here. Anchovies and black olives do suggest southern Italian cooking.
I can imagine that even before tomatoes were finally part of everyday cooking in Italy, someone thought of adding that to a Cacciatore dish as well, especially the chicken one. I have tried many, many variations and one day, I just took about half a dozen of the recipes I had tried and concocted a synthesis of them all. It is terrific! Just make sure you have all the ingredients indicated and make no substitutions. Certainly best done in late summer when fresh tomatoes are plentiful, such as Romas or San Marzano.
Pollo alla Cacciatore
1 3 lb chicken, cut up, or chicken pieces
salt and pepper
1/4 cup butter
2 Tbs olive oil
2 slices pancetta (or bacon), cut in squares
2 medium onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tsp flour
4 to 5 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 Tbs tomato purée (doppo concentrato)
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 Tbs brandy
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 lb mushrooms, whole if small
2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbs chopped fresh basil
1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Melt the butter and olive oil in a casserole, and brown the chicken over medium heat. Removed when browned on all sides.
2. Add the bacon to the casserole and cook for a minute or two, then add the onions and garlic, and sauté them for 5 minutes. Scrape the bottom for any browned bits. Add the flour and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree, wine and brandy, chicken stock, bringing to a boil. Simmer covered for 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and sugar. Return the chicken to the casserole, and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 20 minutes or so, add the mushrooms.
3. Remove the chicken to a heated platter, check the sauce for seasoning, bring to a vigorous boil and reduce it to a thick consistency.
4. Off the heat, mix half the parsley and basil into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle the remaining parsley and basil over that.
Nutrition (per serving): 424 calories, 253 calories from fat, 28.6g total fat, 43.4mg cholesterol, 1247mg sodium, 1397.5mg potassium, 30.5g carbohydrates, 7.2g fibre, 16.1g sugar, 11.9g protein.
Some folks who prefer a more authentic chicken cacciatore suggest that the resulting dish (with tomatoes) is best suited as a pasta sauce. The dish is certainly delicious with pasta, especially large noodles like fettuccine or tagliatelle. A green vegetable, like steamed green beans, add even more colour to the dish.
I am sure I will always read new variations for Chicken Cacciatore with great interest, and they will surely keep coming, many arguing it is the authentic one, but what IS authentic with a dish like this? In the end, it is about flavour, and probably, just as important, good friends to share the meal.
© Roger H. Boulet, 2015