Pollo alla Cacciatora
Having made a rustic bread like the focaccia, I needed a stew to go along with it. A simple italian fare like Pollo alla Cacciatora couldn’t have been a more apt choice.
Italian cooking, for me had always been confined to the usual pastas and pizzas. To me, French cooking had always represented the epitome of Western culinary art, but watching Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s Great Italian Escape” really changed my perception of italian food, the people and their culture. From monks to mafia, the Italians are really passionate about food and know it well. They are totally unbashful about it, generous in sharing their ideas and at the same time, being absolutely insistent on every detail to how simple greens should be cooked or how pasta should be rolled. And just when you thought you’d gotten it right, the italian mammamias 20km down the road in the next village would refute, refuse and revoke everything what you’d thought you’d perfected a village earlier. Intriguing isn’t it? In short, everyone wants a piece of the pie – THEIR piece quite literally.
Taking a more macro view of matters, there is simply no “right recipe”. Many recipes are passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, or simply through observing how its being done by the predecessor. That was how I “learnt” my grandmother’s Teochew-styled Braised Duck and I certainly believe that’s how many italian mamas learnt theirs; from their mamas whom in turn learnt it from their mamas.
Not trying to justify for this slipshod attempt at Pollo alla Cacciatora but italian cooking is really unpretentious, “no-frills” and kept simple and minimal whenever possible. And precisely its these attributes that make italian cooking so approachable and appealing.
We first tried the dish two years back in a now-dyfunct italian restaurant Cafeteria il Lido, Suntec City Fountain Terrace. No blog reviews then but you can find my “humble comments on our flickr entries here, here and here. I can’t say I liked it as I was anticipating something with more punch. So I made sure I try to fulfill all the elements of what I had in mind for a dish as simple and rustic as this. And here’s what I came up with.
2-3 large whole chicken thighs, skin on
1 large red onion (I find red or purple onions more robust in flavour but feel free to use white or yellow ones)
1 medium-sized carrot
1/2 yellow and/or green zucchini
2 red tomatoes
2 tbsp olive oil (I used the leftovers from my focaccia making which had been infused with rosemary and garlic)
2-3 cloves of garlic (I “recycled” the ones used in the “olive oil infusion” process)
250ml of red wine
100ml tomato purée aka passata di pomodoro (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
fresh herbs (rosemary for me, leftovers from focaccia making)
Bruise garlic with side of knife but leave skin membrane intact
Julienne onions, carrots and zucchini coarsely into thick strips.
Cut tomatoes into 1/8th size pieces
In a deep saucepan, add olive oil followed by chicken thighs, skin side down. Saute the pieces until golden brown on both sides.
Remove the chicken pieces from the saucepan but retain the oil and chicken fat.
Add onions and cook in chicken fat and remnants of olive oil until slightly soft and lightly caramelised. Add garlic, followed by zucchini and carrots and stir evenly.
Add tomatoes, tomato purée if using, put back chicken pieces and down the red wine. Stir thoroughly.
Add a pinch of salt and pepper to taste and finally top up with water until the ingredients are just covered. Add more water if more sauce is desired.
Turn down the flame to low, lid on and simmer for about 30-40 min
Chop up the fresh herbs meanwhile.
When cooking time is up, test that the chicken is thoroughly cooked by piercing a skewer through the thickest part of the meat. The liquids would have reduced considerably until barely sufficient to coat the ingredients.
Test-taste the sauce and balance with salt or sugar if necessary to your own liking.
If a more tender texture is desired, prolong simmering time by another 15 min. Careful not to overdo it as the meat would become very fibrous.
when ready, sprinkle with fresh herbs and give the ingredients a good toss.
Sprinkle with more herbs on top and serve with rustic bread or pasta
Notes and reflections
“Cacciatore” basically means “hunter-style” cooking so think of a big pot of stew simmering over firewood with freshly hunted game and plucked or harvested vegetables in it. Think wild, think unrefined, think primordial!
Choose vegetables which can withstand stewing like radish, parsnip, mushrooms, potatoes. Skip the leafy types as they would turn yellow, soggy and drab.
Tomato purée is entirely optional and pretty much a personal choice. Simply replace with another 1-2 diced tomatoes. The simmering process would help “pureefy” the tomatoes anyway.
Don’t cut up the vegetables too thinly as they would soften too much and reduce to nothing in the end. I don’t think you wanna end up eating something of baby food texture.
Red wine is traditionally used in cacciatore dishes and I used a 2000 Australian Shiraz which had been sitting around for too long. Took a sip before adding into the saucepan and I like the fact that its a bit dry and warm with a bit of sharpness and spiciness. I don’t drink much and J is allergic to alcohol, so might as well use it for cooking!
Feel free to opt out the water and
topple tip in a whole bottle for a more full-bodied and robust palate experience.
Test-tasting is necessary for this dish as the acridity of tomatoes and purée varies with variety and batch.
For a more “flavourful” stew, a cube of vegetable or chicken bouillon concentrate or granules might be added in. Just make sure its MSG-free.
Use fresh herbs if possible. The overtones from dry herbs are quite different and my personal preference is fresh. Coriander and parsley do very well but i’m partial to rosemary here.
Chicken can be replaced with turkey, lamb or if you are game for it (pun intended!), rabbit if you can lay your hands on some. I’d seen them at Carrefour eons ago but not sure if they still carry it.
I like the dish more on the wet side as the sauce would be great to dunk long wedges of focaccia into. Reduce the liquids further through simmering with lid off if one prefers a thicker gravy to adhere to the ingredients better.