My mother’s aunt was a tiny speck of a woman who presided over a large household, with six children, a husband, and various single relatives who all dined at her table. The family of landowners was a pleasant and eclectic mixture of farmers and intellectuals: antique books in the attic and large plots of lands mainly devoted to fruit.
Aunt Anna, who was blonde, blue-eyed and always impeccably dressed, loved to play her concert piano in the somber living room filled with furniture from other centuries. When I was a child, that room and the adjoining dining room with the impossibly long and dark mahogany table were places of wonder, filled with adult chitchat that went on for hours and where I enjoyed the best chicken and fries ever.
Anna’s roasted Cornish hen was legendary but her regular chicken was also like no other. That the chickens and hens came from the farms, their necks wrung a mere 24 hours earlier (and not a hormone in sight) probably made all the difference. No chicken I am likely to buy, even at a Farmer’s Market, could ever compete.
Aunt Anna died quite a few years ago, her house modernized after the earthquake that struck Emilia-Romagna and, to my knowledge, the piano is still there, probably untouched. Her recipes do live on intact though. My mother says she learned from her aunt everything there is to know about chicken, including her chicken cacciatore for which I felt nostalgic this week and asked her to prepare.
Where I come from, chicken cacciatore calls for nothing more than tomatoes, but some traditions include bell peppers and even mushrooms, so adapt as you please. There are not many secrets to this dish, other than a decent chicken and good tomatoes (here I used a combination of fresh and canned but you can go either way).
- Start with a whole chicken cut into pieces by your butcher or with a combination of breasts, thighs and drumstick. Or just the cuts you prefer, provided they still have their skin and bones.
Marinate the chicken in some olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper for a few hours.
- When you are ready to cook it, pour some olive oil in a large skillet, drench the chicken in some flour and shake off the excess, then brown it on both sides.
- In a Dutch oven or other heavy pot, sautee half an onion finely diced in a few tablespoons of olive oil, until translucent. Add the chicken and splash some wine in the pot, either white or red, whatever you have handy. Let it evaporate.
- Add either a large can of chopped tomatoes or half a can and 5 fresh tomatoes, cut into large pieces (peeled by blanching them in boiling water for a minute or so) to the chicken. Season with salt and pepper and let cook on medium heat until the chicken is fully cooked and the sauce has thickened. I don’t like this dish soupy so I let the tomatoes thicken quite a bit but it is up to your preference.
- This is the quintessential sopping dish so serve it with some nice crusty bread to mop up the sauce and some mean roasted potatoes on the side.