Once a friend sought some advice and when I’d given my thoughts she said she was so pleased she’d asked me as she knew I’d think the same way as her, and you should always seek advice from someone who will tell you what you want to hear. I was reminded of this exchange as I sought the recipe I wanted today. I had in mind that I would make Pollo alla Cacciatora; I had in mind a rich sauce with the essential tomatoes but also some mushrooms. Why mushrooms stuck in my mind I don’t know (perhaps it’s because I’ve made a vegetarian mushroom version of the dish). But I was determined to find a chicken ‘cacciatora’ recipe that included mushrooms. Of course, I could have just put them in but I wanted someone else to agree with me that they worked well in this recipe.
Start researching any ‘classic’ recipe and it’s a minefield for dissent. Angela Hartnett didn’t even put the tomatoes in – and she’s of Italian descent. I’d thought tomatoes were an absolute given, but obviously not. Jamie Oliver jazzes the recipe up in his usual way adding olives, anchovies, red wine and uses tinned tomatoes. Antonio Carluccio, who tends towards more straightforward methods, uses fresh tomatoes and white wine with just some rosemary and garlic. Rosemary and garlic seem givens in all recipes; sometimes there is agreement. So – red wine or white; fresh tomatoes or tinned? It seems that the red or white question is a north-south divide: the north prefer white and the southerners prefer red. But what about those mushrooms? Blue Guide: Italy Food Companion describes ‘alla cacciatora’ as ‘cooked in a rich tomato sauce with mushrooms and peppers’. Peppers? Yes, some people like to add peppers too. I turned to Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy. Mushrooms! And pancetta. Yes, some recipes added pancetta. Claudia is also a white wine and fresh tomatoes fan when it comes to ‘cacciatora’. Well, there’s only so far you can take this research malarkey. I was going with Claudia. Well … sort of …
‘Alla cacciatora‘ means in the style of the hunter so really it’s a very rustic dish and traditionally has often been made with rabbit. I guess other ingredients back in time would have depended on what was in season but the inclusion of tomatoes, garlic and rosemary seems pretty standard. I wanted to use fresh tomatoes, preferring their lighter, fresher taste. I find I use tinned ones less and less but there’s no doubt their deep, rich flavour is often more appropriate and they would certainly work well in this recipe too.
I skinned 500g tomatoes. Cut a very shallow cross just into the skin of each tomato, then cover with boiling water. After just about a minute you’ll see the skin start to pull away. Drain the tomatoes and skin as soon as cool enough to handle. Then chop the flesh roughly.
I cut a couple of stems of rosemary from the bush in my garden and chopped one fat clove of garlic and set aside with 2 bay leaves. Then I gently fried 100g chopped pancetta in a large pan with the garlic.
I added 3 chicken portions which I’d seasoned with salt and pepper. (Three because I had just 3 in my freezer, which I’d defrosted during the day. I was cooking for 2 but thought I might as well defrost and cook the extra portion. While you can’t refreeze defrosted raw meat it is OK to cook it and then freeze). This recipe will easily do 4 portions or a whole jointed chicken. I browned the chicken on both sides. Then I added the rosemary, bay leaves and 200g sliced chestnut mushrooms. I cooked, turning all the while, until the mushrooms started to colour. Next I added a small (one of those individual sizes of about 180ml) white wine. I let it come to a simmer and then left for just 3-5 minutes to bubble away gently and reduce slightly.
Next I added the chopped tomatoes (and as you’ll see, a little chopped parsley, just because I had some left over from something else!). I also added 350ml chicken stock.
I brought everything to the boil and then turned down to a simmer, put a lid on, and then cooked gently for 45 minutes.
I lifted the chicken portions out, turned the heat up and then let the sauce bubble away for just 3-5 minutes to reduce and thicken a bit. Now check your seasoning, adjust as necessary and then return the chicken pieces to the pan. I cooked this earlier in the day and then reheated at suppertime, which makes it ideal for entertaining. I decided to serve it with polenta. I use an instant version which I buy in Carluccio’s. It’s very good and really is pretty instant! I like to season polenta well with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper, a good amount of butter and some Parmesan. I also made a simple green salad to go with the meal.
It was really gorgeous. And very appropriate for what had turned out to be a cold, wet and very windy day – more akin to March than June!! There was a lightness to the dish with the fresh tomatoes and herbs but a wonderful deepness of flavour from the chicken with the added stock, pancetta and white wine. I loved the creamy polenta with it but mashed potatoes would be great too, or even some boiled little new potatoes now they’re in season.