If you eliminate, for the sake of argument, the frozen food case and the fast food that nourishes the automobile more than the body, our national culture lacks a fixed culinary identity. Instead, we crave new sensations, and we have lots of disposable income. The result is the charmingly earnest American propensity for food fads, an obsession particularly virulent among the elite and effete.
Currently on the American culinary horizon the austere food of Tuscany looms as the pinnacle of sophistication; those discriminating palates that define what is in and what is out having tired of French (too rich), fusion cuisine (too bizarre), Szechwan, Thai, Cajun, and Tex-Mex (too yesterday). Only a decade or two ago, the Italian cuisine that reigned supreme was northern Italian food, principally that of Emilia-Romagna (now both too rich and too baroque).
Interestingly, at the time this wave broke upon our shores in the early 1980’s, this northern designation (north of Rome, I gather) became a watchword for authenticity and refinement. Its antithesis was the supposed southern Italian food that was served at the local pizzeria/spaghetti parlor. Authorities assured us that what we had all along assumed to be Italian was a caricature foisted upon an ignorant public by generations of Italian-American immigrants, rustics hailing from places like Palermo and Naples who insisted on slathering everything with tomato sauce and loads of garlic.
The authorities were wrong on two counts, even if they were partially right on a third. First, the ridicule heaped, by implication, on the cooking of southern Italy is an injustice that betrays only the prejudice of the accuser; it is a reflection of the animosity and contempt that many northern Italians feel for their southern brethren.
The truth of the matter is that the culinary history of Naples or Palermo is at least as interesting as that of Bologna or Venice, and the local fare just as varied and delightful. Influenced by Spain (the tomato was an early eighteenth-century introduction from the Spanish Bourbon rulers of Naples), Greece (Southern Italy was part of Magna Grecia), Africa, and just about every other power that existed since the dawn of civilization, the cuisine of southern Italy is a conglomeration of flavors, a crossroads of tastes, and a blend of ingredients from around the world.
Secondarily, the home cooking of Italian-Americans preserves much of the integrity of the land from which it originated. Some of the best food this country has to offer is found in Italian-American neighborhoods in San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Chicago. And lastly, while it is true that some of the Sinatraesque “Little Italy” food of the 1950’s – spaghetti and meatballs, deep-dish pizza – are American inventions, I would characterize them more as adaptations to our native conditions than as caricatures of their ancestral ones. Besides, if well made (and mushy pasta is abhorrent anywhere) such food is delicious, fun to eat, and these days, poignant with nostalgia.
Which brings me to chicken cacciatore. “Cacciatore” means hunter’s-style, and my perfunctory research indicates that the dish does have an Italian origin: a chicken is cut up and browned in olive oil, then braised in a light tomato sauce that usually contains wild mushrooms. The dish is a kind of hunter’s solace; domestic poultry replaces the pheasant or hare that got away, the porcini being all that could be salvaged from a day in the forest.
Translated into our modern circumstances (we who don’t have to worry where our next meal will come from) there is much to recommend here: the dish is relatively light, subtle in flavor, quickly prepared, and the wild mushrooms, fresh or dried, add a sophisticated touch. This is all well and good, but it is not the Chicken Cacciatore I crave when I crave chicken cacciatore.
Bring on the tomato sauce with lots of garlic. Put on some Dino or Frank while you cook. And if someone out there should say that that’s not the way my mom, grandma, great aunt, etc., does it, I can only state that this recipe is guaranteed inauthentic. The history just may not jive, but the flavor exceeds expectations.
Buy a cut-up medium-sized fryer (3 to 4 lbs.) and put the pieces skin-side up in a large baking dish that has been lightly coated with olive oil. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees, and season the chicken with salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Bake the pieces for 50 to 55 minutes. Check after 45 minutes; if the pieces haven’t achieved a crisp bronze surface turn the heat up to 400 degrees for the last ten minutes or so.
You should begin preparing the sauce before the chicken goes in the oven. Dice a medium onion and at least six cloves (preferably a whole head) of garlic and saute in olive oil on medium heat in a large saucepan until soft and just beginning to brown. Add a six oz. can of tomato paste, stirring and frying the paste in the oil. Then add a 28 oz. can of tomato sauce or crushed tomato puree, a cup of dry red wine, a hefty pinch of mixed dried herbs, and a smaller pinch of fennel seeds, a bay leaf, and a healthy dose of chili flakes for those who want a spicy sauce. Season with salt to taste, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 45 minutes while the chicken is baking. If the sauce seems too thick, add a half-cup or so of water.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and turn up the heat to 400 degrees if you haven’t already done so. Carefully, so as not to burn yourself, remove as much of the ample fat that has been rendered by the chicken as possible. This is a necessary step. The sauce will be far too greasy if you don’t. Pour the sauce over and around the chicken pieces and top with a cup of grated Parmesan cheese and a hefty grind of black pepper. Return to the oven for about 15-20 minutes so the cheese can crust and brown. Some people like to add sauted mushrooms to the sauce, but I prefer it without. There should be more than enough sauce to deal with any pasta served along side, and garlic bread is a good accompaniment too, along with a green salad, and lots of vino. Serves at least 4.
Publisher’s Note: This author published this article on caffeinedestiny.com, and while it correctly defines Cacciatore as meaning “hunter”, in fact the name Cacciatore is a family name, in honor of which the dish is actually named. It is far more likely this dish comes from somewhere in southern Italy, in the former Kingdom of Naples. The tomato was introduced to Italy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries when that kingdom became part of Spain’s growing empire. The tomato, one must remember, is not native to Europe, but to the Americas, and one of the agricultural benefits of Spain’s conquests across the Atlantic.
The southern Italian region is filled with those who raise excellent vegetables, and chickens, and have available to them all the ingredients for this dish. The attribution for this being a “hunter” style dish is a misnomer, as chickens are domestic birds and not hunted, hence we can presume that Italians would not be hunting birds found in the farm’s hen house.
Chicken Cacciatore set the standard for what became a rustic or hunter-style dish, which later moved to France as “Chasseur.” It might be noted that it was common, up to the 19th century, for Europeans to make similarities between words or styles that were in fact not connected. It is easy to presume something is named one way, when it is named for something else. Let’s just remember that the people of southern Italy have been cooking domesticated birds for over 3,500 years, and while the tomato is new, most other ingredients in this dish are as old as the hills on which they farm.