Monday, February 21, 2011

Basic Chicken Cacciatore

Chicken Cacciatore over brown rice with home-made wheat bread

The essence of comfort food is deceptive simplicity. Take a seemingly simple dish such as this one, and realize that there are literally thousands of minor variations on it that still capture the essence of what a Chicken Cacciatore is. The wonderful thing about most comfort foods is that, when done well, a slight twist to some detail can produce a great variant on the dish, but still retain all the things that make it a "comfort food".

For tonight's dinner, I went with a very straightforward Chicken Cacciatore - I do not claim that this is the essential version of the dish upon which all others are built, but it is the essential version in my own personal food experience. For me, that is chicken on the bone slowly braised in a tomato sauce with sweet peppers and onions. My version takes a few minor shortcuts to save time (I would love to do the tomato sauce completely from scratch- but the demands of the household mean that I usually need to use good quality  canned tomato puree augmented with some fresh tomatoes. I also did not have wine on hand, but actually like the results when I use a small amount of Balsamic Vinegar in it's place- a trick I commonly use when I actually have time to make sauce from scratch.)- so this recipe is tuned for the average home cook rather than the high-end gourmet. Depending on your preferences, it can be served over rice, over pasta, or on it's own.I recommend having a hunk of a good rustic bread on hand to help mop up the leftover sauce.

The base recipe is similar in concept to France's Coq au Vin. In many traditional versions, mushrooms are one of the stars of the show - however, the version I learned from my family never used them- and I've seen just as many versions of dish with mushrooms as there are without, so it is a matter of preference.

About 12 pieces of chicken (I prefer to use legs and thighs- 12 pieces is about as much as my largest saucepan can handle)
Black Pepper
2 Small Onions (or 1 large onion) - chopped or sliced into half-moons
4-5 Sweet Bell peppers (I prefer to use green ones for the color, but I end up going with whatever color pepper looks fresher at the market- this week the red peppers looked great, so I went with it) - clean and cut the peppers into strips about two inches long and 1/4 inch wide.
approx 2 Tomatoes (diced)
1 large can (28oz) of Tomatoes (pureed or crushed)
About 3tbsp olive oil
1 pinch chili flakes
about 2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2-3 cloves garlic (minced)
Herbs: (no exact measures, start with 1 tsp of each and adjust to taste)

Heat up a large saucepan with the olive oil (pan should be large enough to hold all the chicken and enough sauce to cover it). Season the chicken with a little salt and pepper. Brown the chicken until it has a nice brown sear - you do not need to cook the chicken through, just get good color on the surface, it will cook through when we braise it later. Do not crowd the pan or the chicken will not brown- split the chicken into two or three batches. Set chicken aside. The chicken will take a while to brown - use the time to chop/mince your onions, peppers, garlic and tomatoes. Make sure to leave any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan- this is flavor that will add nice depth to your sauce.

Saute the onions in the leftover oil and chicken fat until translucent- season with a little more slat and pepper. Add in the minced garlic, saute for about another minute, then add the bell pepper and the diced tomatoes, and continue to saute until the peppers soften and the tomatoes begin to break down.

Add in the can of tomato puree (or crushed tomato). Season again with salt and pepper to taste, and add the herbs and a small pinch of chili flakes. I do not measure the herbs exactly- I start with about a teaspoon of each and add more according to taste and smell. The tomatoes can vary in sweetness and ripeness, so I go with what my sense tell me to do. The sauce should have a distinct scent of basil when it's right, and the balance of parsley and oregano should be whatever your taste buds find most pleasing.  When it seems right to you, add in the balsamic vinegar- then taste and adjust seasoning again. When you're happy with the taste, add in a little extra water (about 1/4 cup) so you'll have enough liquid to cover the chicken and bring the whole thing up to a boil.

Add the chicken to the sauce, and turn them so they are covered. Reduce heat and simmer for at least an hour (longer is better! If I have the time, I'll let it go 2 hours or more!) I like to put the cover on the pan, but leave the cover offset so steam can escape so you keep the heat in, but still allow the sauce to reduce at a more controlled pace. Uncover for the last 15 minutes to let the sauce thicken up. Remember to stir the sauce periodically to help the chicken cook evenly, and to keep the peppers and onions from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Give the sauce a final taste and adjust seasoning one last time if needed.

Serve the chicken over rice or pasta. I like my chicken Cacciatore to have a lot of sauce, so have some good crusty bread on hand to mop it up! The chicken should be tender and practically falling off the bone. The sauce should have deep layers of flavor- the richness of the chicken and the garlic, sweetness from the pepper and onion, a little bright tang from the balsamic vinegar, and the floral flavor and scent of the herbs. This is a dish that is very rustic, yet refined when done right.

From this basic recipe, you can see how easily you can personalize it without sacrificing integrity- every Italian worth mentioning has their own personal preferences and ideas for making tomato sauce- you could use wine instead of the balsamic vinegar, add mushrooms, use a different blend of herbs, use more fresh tomato, make the sauce more or less chunky, etc. The possibilities are endless, and all are valid as long as you stick to the central concept of slow cooking your chicken in a hearty tomato based sauce.


  1. Hi and thanks so much for your comments on the debate! This chicken caccitorri sounds anjd looks wonderful everything in it is fabulous!
    I am married to a sicilian! He has never called tomatoe topping gravy only sauce. However, in this debate it has been unanimously called sauce... Sicilian from italy all called it gravy and eventually called it sauce in America... so you are in the majority!

  2. I wonder if the same people who call it gravy also call all pasta "macaroni" - it was true in my family, especially my grandparent's generation who were the ones who originally immigrated here from Italy. Thanks for the comment Claudia.