When I was making pesto the other evening and looking through my Italian Cooking by Robin Howe, I spied on the same ‘Sauces’ page – Salsa alla Cacciatora. She describes this as ‘an excellent rich sauce’ that goes well with ‘pasta or polenta’. The ‘alla cacciatora‘ means in the style of the hunter. And most usually this traditional Italian sauce is cooked with chicken – Pollo alla cacciatora – or sometimes rabbit. Which makes sense if you’re a hunter. But I liked the idea of doing it as a mid-week vegetarian dish with polenta. It was actually Robin who introduced me to ‘alla cacciatora‘ when I visited her all those many years ago at home in Liguria (see my last post). She recommended a restaurant for us to visit in the hills, away from the sea where she lived, and told us we should try the Pollo alla cacciatora. Those were days before I’d tried to learn Italian and I always remember when I see this dish that she told us to think, ‘catcha Tory’ for the pronunciation! Cacciatore – the ‘e’ at the end is pronounced ‘a’ in Italian – means ‘hunter’.
Robin’s recipe uses mushrooms in the dish with no meat, and that’s what I did tonight. She talks of there being several versions but the sauce is essentially one consisting of onions, garlic, tomatoes, herbs (usually fresh rosemary) and wine. White wine is more usual in the north of Italy while those in the south prefer red.
My new Blue Guide Italy Food Companion says alla cacciatora is a ‘rich tomato sauce with mushrooms and sweet peppers’. Claudia Roden in her The Food of Italy also adds mushrooms to the sauce, but many don’t; she uses white wine, as does Robin. They both use parsley but neither added anchovy fillets and olives, as Jamie Oliver does in his Jamie’s Italy. It’s always interesting to see the different versions of ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ dishes, but I decided to just go with Robin’s recipe (more or less!) for my sauce. She lived in Italy for many years and retired there – and, as her editor, who went shopping in markets and food shops with her, I knew she was a stickler for accuracy!
First of all finely slice a medium onion and gently fry it in some extra virgin olive oil. Once it begins to colour, add in about 160g mushroom, sliced, with 1 crushed clove garlic. Continue to cook until the mushrooms colour. Now add about 125ml white wine and let it bubble and reduce a bit. Then add 250g tomatoes, skinned and chopped; some chopped fresh rosemary, 1 tablespoon tomato puree and about 125ml stock (I used chicken but use vegetable if you want a truly vegetarian dish). Season with salt and pepper.
Allow to simmer and thicken for about 15-20 minutes and add a good handful of chopped parsley near the end, allowing it to cook on for 5 minutes or so after.
When the sauce is nearly ready, prepare your polenta. I use quick cooking so it doesn’t take long, but follow the instructions on your packet. Boil some water in a small pan then add the polenta slowly, stirring well as you go as it tends to go a bit lumpy. Once you have a nice creamy ‘mashed potato’ consistency, season well with salt and freshly grated black pepper and a big lump of butter. Then stir in a good grating of Parmesan. Polenta is pretty bland unless well seasoned.
Now assemble your dish. Spread the polenta on a dish and then spoon the cacciatora sauce over the top. Grate just a little more Parmesan over the top and I also like to drizzle over a little more olive oil right at the end. I served it with a green salad at the side.
It was really fabulous; so rich and meaty. Mushrooms are quite meaty; they also contain some protein and are full of goodness. Some recipes I looked at used tinned tomatoes in the sauce but I like the freshness you get using fresh tomatoes in a dish like this. I’d managed to cook the polenta better than my last attempt too, so it was smooth and creamy; the flavourings resulting in a good taste that happily matched the sauce. It was a very good meal and a great one if you are or have vegetarian friends (though of course you won’t add the chicken stock as I did!).