Chicken Cacciatore

(Pollo alla Cacciatora, Poulet Chasseur):
My Favourite Low-Cost Technique from Last Winter

and even better with fresh tomatoes
(c) 2014, Davd

Winter clothes unpacked yet? Shorts and swimwear boxed up and put in the attic? (If you put a few mothballs in the box with the out-of-season clothes—even though most summer clothing has no wool in it—and put them in the cellar or wherever mice usually invade your house, my neighbour Smitty tells me the mothballs will repel the mice. I’m giving it a try; it sounds plausible—and from inside a box, the mothballs should leak out their fumes slowly enough that the house won’t smell of naphtha.)

We don’t literally put our barbecues in mothballs, but we Canadians do use them seldom to never between early October and late May. And once the barbecue season is over in Canada, and the slaughtering season is here, food stores are likely to shift focus from luxury to economy. That’s what happened last year, anyhow: Starting last autumn, the nearest full-size grocery store to my home sold 5 kg boxes of “broken chicken drumsticks” (Pilons de Poulet Cassées) for about $2.50 per kilo. What’s broken off is mostly bone—the packages contained chicken drumsticks, with a third or so of the bone missing at the lower end—for about half the price of whole chicken drumsticks. It was the least expensive meat in the nearby grocery stores—and i like chicken maybe less than beef, trout, or wild salmon, but at least as well as pork; so last winter, i ate more chicken than any other one kind of meat.

Chicken, pasta, and tomatoes go very well together, and i like all three well enough to eat them just about every day. Mushrooms too, for that matter. With chicken the bargain meat last winter, chicken cacciatore became the commonest main dish of the season—and i remember those meals with pleasure.

(If you don’t forage wild mushrooms, start cautiously. There are a few deadly poisonous mushroom species, and some that can make you sick but not likely kill you, as well as a larger number of good to very good, safe ones; and there are many species that are neither poisonous nor pleasant to eat. To start with, read a good basic mushroom hunting book and take your first foraging trips with an experienced companion—one you trust, and who hasn’t made himself or herself sick with any recent mistakes.)

My favourite vegetable, among those that can be easily stored for winter use, is the tomato. It’s healthy, it’s versatile, it’s tasty. I can eat tomatoes twice a day for weeks, and not get bored with them. Sure, there are times when i prefer a fresh cucumber, 6-8 inches long and picked that same day1, quartered lengthwise, with a sprinkle of salt. In early spring, if i’ve had cooked tomatoes all winter, i’d rather have asparagus steamed to a bright green (and in early spring, fresh tomatoes are not an alternative.) And if i’ve had tomatoes every day for a week or two, i might prefer broccoli or green beans, picked that day and steamed to a bright green. But the number of meals per month i can enjoy tomatoes is more than the number i can enjoy cucumber, broccoli, or green beans.

Most fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, are intermediate in “storage life”: They needn’t be eaten within a few hours of harvest as asparagus, sweet corn, cucumbers, green beans, and leaf lettuce reallly should be… but they won’t keep for weeks without losing quality.

Tomatoes, however, have two properties that make them more useful as “winter vegetables” than green beans, sweet corn, or even broccoli: They are acid, and their skins are virtually waterproof. Because they are acid, they can be sealed in canning jars with no risk of botulism2. Because their skins are virtually waterproof, they can be frozen in plastic food bags (even in grocery store carry-home bags) and they won’t freezer burn. (If you grow too many green beans, you can blanch and freeze them, but they won’t be like fresh cooked. If you grow too many broccoli, their texture after freezing will be even less fun.3) So while you shouldn’t plan to grow more green beans and broccoli than you’ll want to eat plus give away while they’re fresh, it makes good sense to grow lots of tomatoes and use the rest in winter cooking.

Few of us, once we realize how tomatoes can contribute to winter menus, will have the garden space and spare time grow a full year’s supply of tomatoes at home. Fortunately, canned tomatoes are about the least expensive canned vegetable: A 28-ounce [796 ml] can has cost 80 cents to a dollar on special, last year and this. It makes pretty good sense to buy ahead when you find a price below the dollar mark; because the “best before date” will usually be 1-2 years after the day you find them in the store. I like to have 2-3 dozen cans in the house by the time the snowplows first go to work, even if i’m still using my home grown tomatoes in the kitchen.

Cacciatore is the third tomato-sauce main dish i’ve described here: The first was salsa-picante; the second was chili. (The fourth will be a generic pasta sauce, and the fifth, St-Laurent pasta sauce.) Maybe it’s time to write a little about the common patterns to the seasoning of these five “presentation grade home cooking techniques”, all featuring tomatoes.

If you’re familiar with making turkey stuffing, you might remember the four seasonings Sage, Celery, Onion, and Pepper. Add those four to cubes of bread—stale bread works fine—and some fat and fluid, in proportion; and you’ve made yourself a good, standard poultry stuffing that also works with many kinds of baked fish. Beyond stuffing, and expressed more generally as Strong herb, Celery, Onion, and Pepper .. it’s a seasoning checklist worth remembering, especially with poultry or fish, often with pork, and not so often with beef, lamb, and mutton.

Using the general form, Strong, Celery, Onion, and Pepper , oregano or thyme could be the “strong” herb in place of sage… and oregano is, in most tomato sauces for pasta. Use chili powder as the strong herb, paprika in place of pepper, and add cumin or cilantro, and you’ve listed the seasonings for the basic salsa-picante technique i posted late last autumn. Celery or the richer, celery-like liveche [Levisticum officinale], and onion [or chive, or shallot with delicate meats] go well in nearly every soup or sauce that’s meaty rather than sweet, and some, like salsa-picante and chili, that are meatless but savoury. Some strong herb should be present, and usually, either pepper or one of the paprika-chili group.

In chicken cacciatore, i use both sage and oregano, liveche, chive in summer and onion in winter, and “hot paprika”. Rare is the cacciatore that doesn’t have some kind of mushrooms in it. And i usually cook only “dark meat” chicken pieces in cacciatore—chicken ‘breast’ i usually steam if skin-on, or sauté if skinless, preferably with tarragon and chive. You don’t have to follow my patterns slavishly; and as you learn to think in terms of flavours, it will help that flavour thinking if you know that my cacciatore seasoning choices are made for “dark meat”.

“Hot Paprika” is something i’ve only recently found in bulk food stores. I suppose it’s been known for years in the boutique gourmet trade—but I’m a gardener-forager-fisherman gourmet, not the boutique sort. If you don’t find it near you, use regular paprika plus a pinch of hot pepper or a couple drops of hot pepper sauce. If you do find it, give it a try; in my humble opinion it’s a bit better.

My first batch of cacciatore this autumn, was made from two “chicken thigh, back attached” pieces, some wild mushrooms [genus Dentinum] that are close to store bought Agaricus in taste, seven small tomatoes, a generous volume of cut chive, and what most recipes would call ample amounts of dried home grown oregano and liveche, plus a smaller but still noticeable amount of dried sage (about two rounded teaspoons, but of hand crushed home grown herb, not commercially powdered.)

The chicken was thawed from Wednesday morning to Thursday late afternoon, in the ‘fridge. This is usually the best way to thaw meat and fish. I cut the excess fat from the pieces and put it in the frying pan to begin melting, and when the fat sizzled, “borrowed” some chicken fat i had saved in the ‘fridge4, and a wee bit of canola oil… just deep enough to brown the skin on the chicken pieces.

While browning the chicken pieces, i cut the mushrooms into a smaller frying pan at low heat, added a tablespoon or two of scissored chive, and left them to cook slowly. I also collected together the herbs and diced the tomatoes. When the skin had browned, i turned the chicken pieces, lowered the heat a little, and when the other side had had a couple minutes to brown, added tomatoes, a substantial amount of cut chive, and the oregano, liveche, sage, and [a bit less than a teaspoon of] hot paprika. Then, the mushrooms being nearly cooked, i added them to the larger pan, along with some salt. When the tomatoes softened, the sauce filled the frying pan over half-way up the chicken pieces; i simmered them 10-15 minutes and then turned them so each side had that long in the barely boiling sauce. By this time, the seasonings had mixed into the sauce.

Since i’m an old man and hadn’t spent the day at hard manual work [just an hour or so], i took one piece of chicken, about half the sauce, and some pasta, for dinner; and put the frying pan with the rest of the chicken and sauce, aside for a second meal later on. (It went into the ‘fridge when it had cooled near room temperature.)

Though the sauce looked to be a quite small amount for the pasta, the flavour was rich and tangy—a special meal even before i cut into the chicken. The chicken was just fully cooked, the sauce had begun to flavour it and, adding the sauce in the spoon to what the chicken had absorbed—yes, this is a presentation quality “dish” when you get used to the seasoning amounts that you like best…

… and in this case, the ingredients i bought cost about a dollar per meal ($2 in total): Pasta, salt, hot paprika, and chicken. The tomatoes, chives, sage, oregano, and liveche were home grown (and i could say the same about the mushrooms, which came from the forest on this land.) I didn’t have to drive to a store for anything i used; indeed, everything that went into that cast-iron skillet had been in the house for more than a week, except the fresh herbs, mushrooms, and tomatoes. The chicken having been frozen didn’t detract from the result, which “freezer robustness” is often a benefit of brown-and-simmer cooking.

A technique worth knowing: Inexpensive, very tasty, handy at harvest time, and come winter, everything you need can be waiting in the house for weeks5.

Notes:

1. There are two choices for “the perfect fresh cucumber”: Eat it as soon as you’ve washed off any dirt or mulch, or put it in the ‘fridge for 2-3 hours and eat it cold. Which is better? De gustibus, non disputandum est [chacun a son gout].

2. Botulism is a deadly bacterial food poisoning that does not give the tainted food a bad taste nor smell. The bacterium that causes it, Clostridium botulinum, doesn’t multiply in acid environments. Tomatoes, in a can or in a jar, are acid—so botulism isn’t a danger if the seal isn’t perfect or the contents didn’t get hot enough to kill the bacterium.

3. Green beans, cucumbers—and broccoli, and most other vegetables—can be pickled for winter use. The result is different enough from the raw or fresh-cooked vegetable that it has quite different places in the menu; and the pickling process is quite a lot of work.

4. The fat trimmings stayed in the pan until the skin side of the chicken pieces had browned, to be exact; then i took out what was left of them to cool for the dog, and poured a little excess fat back into the children-fat container—which ended up less than a teaspoon lower than when i began.

5. Tomatoes freeze and ‘can’ well; chive can be frozen and the technique works well with regular onions; mushrooms can be dried, salted after parboiling, or sautéed and then frozen, to use when they can’t be foraged. (Mushroom hunting and wild-mushroom cooking books will tell you which preservation techniques work with which species—and more important, how to avoid the poisonous ones.) The herbs and spices, other than chives, dry very well.

 

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together “in peace and brotherhood” for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.

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