Cacciatora. When said correctly, this word flows beautifully off the tongue with a gentle roll of the "r" at the finish. I love this word, especially when the word "alla" appears in front of it, as in one of our family's favorite cold-weather meals, Chicken alla Cacciatora.
This dish is near and dear to Tony, whose mother made it often for her family during the fall and winter months when he was growing up in Toronto. Rich, savory and delicious, chicken alla cacciatora (kah-chuh-tore-eh) is the kind of dish you just never want to finish eating because it tastes so good.
Cacciatore means hunter in Italian, and "alla cacciatora" means hunter-style. Originally, this specialty was created by hunters with ingredients they could find easily in forests, fields and gardens.
This traditional Italian dish is prepared in various ways throughout Italy, with each region bringing its own influence to the table. In southern Italy, red wine is typically added during the braising stage; in the north, white wine. Tony follows a Sicilian path and uses both white wine and Marsala, a fortified wine produced in Sicily.
This rustic, one-pot dish typically consists of braised chicken and a variety of vegetables, which are slowly cooked together to create a heavenly, aromatic and hearty hunter's stew. Braising is a great culinary technique to ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked and tender. Tomatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms and bell peppers are commonly used to add depth of flavor, and Tony adds even more Mediterranean flair with the addition of kalamata olives and capers.
To make chicken alla cacciatora, we start with a whole, cut-up chicken. After washing each piece of chicken, they are dredged in a mixture of flour, seasoning and dried herbs. A large stock pot or Dutch oven is best for cooking this dish, and you can use the same pot from start to finish, which I love. However, you could also use a crock pot to cook the dish once the chicken has been browned, which will add another hour or so to the cooking time.
Once the chicken has been dredged in the flour-herb mixture, each piece is browned over medium-high heat until golden brown on all sides, but not black or burned. The chicken is removed and transferred to a plate, and white wine is added to deglaze the pot, until the liquid has reduced by half. This step takes about four to five minutes, and is critical for getting all those tasty little browned bits of meat off the bottom of the pan. In other words, don't rush it.
The vegetables are added next, in different stages so that they are properly cooked. Tony prefers to puree the tomatoes first in a blender for a finer sauce. At this stage, Tony also introduces the Marsala wine along with beef broth, for richness, and brings the mixture to a slight boil before adding the browned chicken pieces. You could also use chicken or vegetable stock, or even water.
Everything cooks together at a gentle simmer, uncovered, for about 30 to 40 minutes until the liquid appears slightly thickened, and then the olives and capers are added. Freshly chopped parsley is added as a final flourish, just before serving.
Chicken alla cacciatora is easy to make and perfect for family dinners or large parties. It's also wonderful when served on a bed of long noodles or whipped potatoes. And you don't even have to be a hunter to enjoy it.
Tony's Chicken alla Cacciatora
1 8-piece chicken, rinsed
½ cup olive oil
1 cup white wine
2 cups yellow onion, diced
4 carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch thick rounds
3 garlic cloves, diced
2 cups button mushrooms, whole (small size)
2 bell peppers (red and yellow) cut into 1-inch squares
1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, pureed
32 ounces beef broth (chicken or vegetable broth good, too)
1 cup Marsala wine
½ cup Kalamata olives, cut into round slices
2 tablespoons capers
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated garlic (or garlic powder)
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme flakes
1 teaspoon dried basil flakes
Rinse the chicken under cold water before handling. Mix all of the dredging ingredients together in a baking dish and dredge the clean chicken pieces in the mixture until evenly coated on all sides.
Heat olive oil in a large stock pot or Dutch over medium-high heat; add chicken pieces and sauté until golden brown on all sides, about 4 to 6 minutes, being careful not to blacken or burn the chicken. Transfer browned chicken to a plate.
Remove pot from burner and add white wine. Return pot to stovetop and cook over medium heat to deglaze the pot, stirring often to break up the browned bits until the liquid has reduced by half, about 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the onions, carrots and garlic and cook over medium heat until softened and onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and bell peppers and continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes until slightly softened.
Add tomato puree, beef broth and Marsala wine and bring mixture to a slight boil. Add the chicken pieces and cook at a gentle simmer for 40 to 45 minutes, until the liquid appears to have thickened slightly. After 15 minutes, taste to check if Marsala wine flavor is present. If not, add more, a half-cup at a time.
Once the sauce has thickened, add kalamata olives and capers, stir and taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper as desired. Transfer to a serving platter and sprinkle the freshly chopped parsley over the dish just before serving.
Serve over long pasta noodles or whipped potatoes.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com.