Thursday, November 15, 2012

Chicken Cacciatore

Plate of Chicken Cacciatore with Spaghetti Squash
Served over Spaghetti Squash

Recipe by Robin

One way to almost guarantee success with a recipe that you haven’t tried before is to make something with tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes. Your chances of success are even greater if you use homemade tomato sauce and/or homemade stewed tomatoes. Add a little wine for even higher odds of success. Case in point: I have only made chicken cacciatore twice but both times it was enthusiastically enjoyed and compliments rolled in. The first success was back in yesteryear when feeding an under-appreciative boyfriend with a recipe from the new 1985 Joy of Cooking. The second success was at a recent dinner party where my husband hoped that I knew what I was doing when I made up a recipe at the last minute.  It’s hard to go wrong with variations on this recipe, as long as you use a wine that you’d consider drinking. It doesn’t need to be expensive wine. I used a 2001 Two Buck Chuck Shiraz. Yeah, I might consider drinking that if the occasion were right, though it’s even better for cooking.

Plate of Browned Chicken
Step 1: Brown Plump Organic Chicken
Chicken cacciatore comes from the Italian alla cacciatora, meaning hunter style. Imagine the hunter from centuries past, stewing his fresh game with tomatoes and other simple vegetables from the fields, herbs from the garden, and a goodly splash of wine. It’s noteworthy that in northern Italy, white wine is traditional in chicken cacciatore, and in southern Italy red wine. This rural origin also explains the many variations in modern chicken cacciatore recipes: some use tomato sauce, some crushed tomatoes, and Joy of Cooking uses a large amount of white wine mixed with tomato paste. Herbs and vegetables vary similarly in different recipes. Some recipes use no wine at all. This gives us plenty of latitude for improvisation. It’s hard to go wrong with tomatoes.

mixing togerher bell pepper, onion, tomatoes, tomato paste, herbs, salt, and pepper  in skillet
Step 2: Make Chunky Tomato Sauce
With that said, freshly stewed tomatoes add a traditional and delicious note to this dish. DIY stewed tomatoes are surprisingly easy to make. I created this recipe so that 3 – 14.5 oz. cans of crushed tomatoes can be used instead. If you use canned tomatoes with salt, you’ll probably want to limit the amount of salt you add to the sauce, or skip it altogether. Vary the amount and form of tomatoes if you like; if you’re short on crushed tomatoes, add a little tomato sauce or tomato paste mixed with chicken broth. The idea is to have the chicken submerged and stewing in the tomatoes, so be sure to use enough. Both chicken and sauce are traditionally served over pasta, but we substituted spaghetti squash. You could instead choose to soak up the liquids with fresh wholegrain bread.

Step 3: Stew Chicken in Tomato Sauce
I used 5 chicken legs, and cut them in half. It’s more traditional to use a cut-up whole chicken (few hunters find chicken legs grazing in the wild), but I chose the legs because they cost less. You can substitute chicken breasts cut in half. I don’t recommend going boneless or skinless. Bones add flavor to the stew. Skin is needed to properly brown the chicken. It’s true that this adds fat, and that’s why I drain and blot the chicken after sautéing, and remove the rendered chicken fat from the pan before browning the onions.

I like to brown chicken more than most people do, which I think improves its flavor. An electric frying pan is helpful for this because it heats evenly and you can control the temperature exactly. Browning the chicken more also cooks out more of the fat. Note that organically fed free-range chickens have substantially less fat than factory-farmed chickens, in addition to being more humanely raised.

Go ahead and test my original premise that recipes with crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce are almost guaranteed to be successful by making your own additions and substitutions. Add a comment to let us know come up with a tasty variation.

Chicken Leg with Cacciatore sauce on plate
Step 4: Taste and Enjoy
Chicken Cacciatore
serves 6 - 8

3½ lbs. chicken legs
~½ tsp. salt
~¼ tsp. pepper
1½ tbsp. olive oil
½ tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion (~9 oz.)
½ lb. green bell pepper (1-2)
3-4 cloves garlic
2 tbsp. tomato paste
~2 lb. 11 oz stewed tomatoes, OR 3 - 14.5 oz cans crushed tomatoes
½ cup dry red wine
1 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried marjoram
¼ tsp. dried thyme
¼ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
parsley (optional garnish)

Separate chicken thighs from drumsticks. Remove any excess fat. Sprinkle with about ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper.

Heat an electric frying pan to 400 degrees F., or heat a large skillet over medium high. When hot, add 1½ tbsp. olive oil and fry chicken parts until brown, about 15-18 minutes, turning frequently. You might want to use a grease screen to cut down on splatters.

While chicken is cooking, chop onions into medium dice, about ½ inch. Dice bell peppers the same size. Peel and mince garlic.

When chicken is brown, remove from frying pan and drain on towel. Blot oil from top of chicken. Drain oil from frying pan, but leave browned bits in pan.

Add ½ tbsp. olive oil to pan and return to medium high heat (375 -  400 degrees F.) Add chopped onions and sauté for about 3 minutes until somewhat soft. Stir frequently, scraping up browned bits. Add chopped bell peppers and continue sautéing and stirring for 5 minutes.

Turn off heat. Add wine and deglaze pan, stirring up browned bits from bottom.

Stir in tomato paste, stewed tomatoes, oregano, marjoram, thyme, salt, and pepper, until all ingredients are blended.

Add browned chicken to frying pan, nestling pieces down into the sauce. Spoon sauce over the top of the chicken pieces. Bring sauce to boil.

Cover pan and turn heat down to low (about 275 degrees F.). Simmer for 45 minutes. Serve over pasta or spaghetti squash, or with wholegrain bread.

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