Chicken Cacciatore is one of those classics of cuisine that almost everyone has heard of or tasted at one time or another. It used to be quite a popular dish at dinner parties, enjoying the same sort of brief vogue as did Moussaka for a time, and it is perhaps for this reason that it seems to be regarded as somewhat passé and doesn’t appear nearly so often as it once did on Italian restaurant menus.
As one might expect with a dish that is included in the repertoires of many home cooks, there are many variations. These can range from the simple, sometimes consisting of little more than chicken pieces braised in tomato sauce, to much more complex versions with all sorts of interesting additions. I have been making the dish for many years and, although I never make it exactly the same way, I do have a basic underlying theme that I will share with you here…
The origin and history of the dish is, as is often the case, a little murky and confused. Cookery book after cookery book, and website after website will tell you that the proper Italian name is ‘Pollo alla Cacciatora’ and then go on to explain that the name means ‘Hunter’s style’. In fact, while ‘Cacciatore’ (with a final ‘e’) as it appears in the English name, does mean ‘hunter’, the Italian ‘ alla Cacciatora’ actually means ‘in the style of the hunter’s wife’. While the dish does get made with rabbit, chicken is by far the most common addition to the pot and this seems to be rather at odds with the notion of it being made with a hunter’s kill… unless one can imagine some guy in a funny hat with earflaps stalking the vicious hill chickens of Tuscany, or something…
I have actually come across a couple of sources that claim the dish is actually named after a family by the name of ‘Cacciatore’ who originally hailed from the small community of Polistena in Reggio-Calabria. If so, then this would make the notion that this is a hunter’s style dish completely without foundation. Whatever the truth, though, the modern dish is clearly associated with hunting in some fashion. Personally, I find the ‘hunter’s wife’ or ‘Cacciatora’ name more compelling than I do ‘hunter’s style’ given the use of chicken and tomatoes. It is far easier to see this as a dish a wife might whip up to fortify her husband before the hunt, or perhaps to console him after returning empty handed.
Anyway … although some say that the original dish did not contain tomatoes as it always does today, a review of a wide sampling of recipes reveals that the basic preparation consists of chicken and onions braised in a tomato-based sauce, usually with wine and some herbs. More complex versions can include mushrooms, peppers, olives, bacon or pancetta, anchovies, carrot, celery and capers. Shrimp are occasionally added, although this is very non-traditional, and I have even seen a recipe that added mascarpone.
The version I will be showing you below is of moderate complexity. The ‘non-fundamental’ ingredients I add are bacon, mushrooms and black olives. The bacon, just a small amount, is used largely so that the rendered fat can fry the chicken and add a nice depth of flavor. The mushrooms, besides being delicious, provide that rustic association with the hunt and I always add them. The olives are added because … well, just because I like them…
- 2 lbs. Chicken pieces
- 2 – 3 cups Fresh Mushrooms (I use a mix of different kinds here)
- 1 small Onion
- ¼ cup Dried Porcini Mushrooms
- 28 oz. Can Diced Tomatoes
- 1/3 cup Black Olives pitted and sliced in half lengthwise.
- Small chunk of Bacon
- Approximately ½ bottle Red Wine
- 2 tbsp. or so of White Wine
- 6 cloves Garlic
- 1 tsp. Dried Rosemary Needles
- 1 Bay Leaf
- 1 tsp. Dried Sage
- 1 ½ tsp. Salt
- 1 tsp. ground Black Pepper
- ½ cup flour
- 1 tbsp. butter
- Olive oil
Slash the chicken in several places. Make a paste of 2 cloves of the garlic, the rosemary, salt, pepper and a tablespoon of oil. Rub the paste into the chicken very well, making sure to get in into the slashes and under the skin. Set the pieces aside for an hour or so.
Next, put the chicken pieces in a small bowl with the bay leaf and pour over enough of the red wine to cover. Marinate in the fridge overnight.
Slice the remaining garlic. Cut the onion in half through the top and the slice each half crosswise into thin half rings. Slice, or quarter any whole mushrooms and slice the bacon into matchstick pieces. Put the porcini pieces into a small bowl and pour over boiling water to cover.
Heat a pan over moderately high heat and add a generous splash of olive oil. When it is hot, add the mushrooms and cover until they throw of their liquid. Continue to sauté until they begin to get crispy brown spots in places then add a splash of white wine. Stir until the wine is absorbed then remove the mushrooms from the heat and set aside in a bowl.
Drain the chicken and strain the marinade for later. Pat the chicken pieces and then coat with the flour, reserving the excess. Clean the pan and put it back on medium heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil and when it is hot add the bacon pieces, stirring until they get crispy and have given up their fat. Remove the bacon and add the chicken to the pan, frying it until nice and golden brown. Remove and set aside. Deglaze the pan with another splash of white wine and add the liquid to the reserved marinade.
Heat a saucepan over medium heat and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Sauté the onion until it is translucent then add the garlic, sage, the mushrooms and the bacon pieces. Add two to three tablespoons of the flour leftover from coating the chicken and stir for a minute or two.
Add the tomatoes, the olives, the drained porcini mushrooms and the strained marinade and cook over moderate heat until the sauce reduces and thickens a little. By the way … when you drain the porcini mushrooms, save the soaking liquid. You can use it to adjust the thickness of the sauce if necessary, or, if you don’t need it for that, it can be used for stocks, soups or stews.
Put the chickens and the sauce into a casserole dish just large enough to hold the chicken pieces snugly and pour over the sauce. Bake, in a 325 degree oven for an hour or so. Keep an eye on it and if the sauce looks to be drying out a bit too much, add some of the porcini soaking liquid. Once the dish is done you can serve it right away. However, if you can resist eating it right away, it will improve no end if you allow it to cool and rest overnight and then re-heat it for serving the next day…
Well… we didn’t wait until the next day to eat this. I initially thought of just serving it with crusty bread but my wife wanted something a little more substantial as she is not a great bread eater at the best of times. I really love this dish with mashed potato as it really soaks up the sauce nicely but the wife absolutely balked at this claiming that it would be just plain wrong… Ultimately, I settled on some nice fresh spaghetti I found at the store.
I tossed the cooked pasta with some garlic oil I had in the fridge along with a little chopped parsley. When I was ready to serve, I spooned a little of the sauce into the bottom of the serving plates, added the spaghetti and then arranged the chicken on top with a bit more sauce. I had some bread and butter with my serving and we both added a little Parmesan at the table.
The dish, all told was pretty good. The chicken was nice and tender and the sauce pretty darned tasty… although not my best, I think. There was lots of nice chicken flavor in the sauce and the red wine added lots of body but it lacked something. A little more salt would have helped and the tomato added less acid than I thought. My wife liked it, but she also said it was not quite as good as her own version. Next time, I might go back to using white wine rather than red (which is how I usually do this dish) and use a good strong chicken stock as well… Still, this experiment was quite nice and we have some leftovers, which should be nice tomorrow.