This is a taste of rustic Italy, where we first learned the meaning of the word “abbondanza”. This is the Italy of our deepest memories, authentic and imposing, like the looming Medieval fortified hill towns of Tuscany.
Where you can eat Chicken Cacciatore while watching the Palio horse races in the flying dirt in the vast crazy tiled plaza at Siena in front of the Piazza, a race that has been run 2 days a year for 600 years. For us, making this meal also brings back memories of walking the winding narrow roads past the little cheese and butcher shops along the ancient high stone fortress walls of San Gimignano, and looking out from Volterra at the chalk white cliffs of the alabaster mines across the valley, unchanged since the Middle Ages.
And driving through the long valley approaching Florence in the fall, when they burn the vine cuttings from the Chianti vineyards and the smoke lies low along the hillsides of ancient olive trees near Vinci, where Leonardo’s farm house lies, where he grew up.
In honor of these places and these memories, we prepare this meal because it too is timeless. The sauce should have a fiery red-orange dark rust color, with a shimmering oily patina, a rustic braise for the ages.
This is the heart of Italy… a soulful cauldron of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, meats, tomatoes, heat, herbs and spices. Cacciatore means “The Hunter”, and in ancient times, this is the meal that was prepared for him when he brought back game for the family. This feast is in honor of Italy, and its place in our hearts.
8 chicken thighs (free range, air chilled) skin off, bone in
1 pound fresh cremini or porcini mushrooms (please try to find them), sliced thickly
1 tablespoon porcini powder (it can be ordered online from Oregon Mushrooms)
2 large red bell peppers, roughly and thickly chopped
2 large sweet onions, roughly and thickly chopped
1 25 oz. jar of store bought marinara sauce (we like Mezzetta brand, because they use imported plum tomatoes from San Marzano) or homemade, which is always best
1 cup of Amontillado Sherry or Marsala
2 cups chicken reduced rich broth (we boil down bones of a whole roasted chicken)
5 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons dried Greek Oregano
8 to 10 cloves of garlic, crushed
3/4 cup olive oil (or we often use 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup duck fat)
1/2 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano, shaved or grated
1/2 box of Angel Hair pasta, (1/2 pound) cooked until al dente, cooled, or we sometimes use our own homemade pasta
1 tablespoon lemon zest
3 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon sprinkled on the chicken, 1 teaspoon in the flour, 1 teaspoon for the vegetables
1 to 2 teaspoons black pepper
Place the flour flattened out on a plate. Lay out skinless chicken thighs, salt and pepper both sides, and dip both sides in the flour, lightly.
If you don’t have porcini, place the sliced cremini mushrooms in a shallow bowl and sprinkle on olive oil and then powdered dried Porcini pores. Stir well, salt and pepper. This is the poor man’s version of fresh porcini, even more intense. ( Of course, to have this magical powder you have to go out into the wilds and find porcini.)
Cook the Angel Hair pasta in boiling salted water till al dente, and then rinse in cool water and put aside.
In a 14 inch fry pan, (cast iron is always best) place the olive oil (and duck fat if possible) and half the crushed garlic, slowly heat the oil till the garlic melts in. When the oil is hot and the garlic sizzling, add the chicken and brown, about 8 minutes each side. Remove and cover.
Fry the mushrooms in this pan till the ‘waters’ are released and the mushrooms are browned, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
Add the onions, the rest of the garlic and the oils, and fry until opaque. Then add the red bell peppers and fry till the peppers are soft.
Add the mushrooms, oregano, marinara sauce, chicken broth, Sherry and capers. Return the chicken to the pan, submerged in the bubbling sauce, cover and simmer on medium low for 20 minutes, it will bubble like lava. Serve with Parmigiano, with Angel Hair pasta to the side. The chicken should be nearly falling off the bone.
It needs a powerful red wine to pierce through it, a wine from old vines, like the Italian people who created this classic meal. Enjoy!