Jude's culinary journey

Where the grass is always greener

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 2/23/22

I hadn’t thought about Joan Deleo in years, but I made chicken cacciatore last night, and this morning found myself reminiscing. She was one of my best friends in junior high school, and I …

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Jude's culinary journey

Where the grass is always greener

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I hadn’t thought about Joan Deleo in years, but I made chicken cacciatore last night, and this morning found myself reminiscing. She was one of my best friends in junior high school, and I loved hanging out at her house. Her mother was gentle, all-knowing (similar to mine and perhaps to all mothers), and slightly reserved, while her father was expansive and gruff, yet loving.

At meals at the Deleos’ house, there were always three things on the table: a long loaf of crusty bread (to be broken by hand, never cut with a knife), a bottle of wine, and her dad’s elbows. “Have a little vino, Jude,” he would offer, raising the wine bottle over a juice glass near my place setting. I felt the thrill of excitement. Usually, if Joan and I drank, it was before a dance at a local church or school gymnasium, and the wine was cheap and tasted awful. My family never had wine with dinner, except maybe for a special Jewish holiday, and then we had to get through a blessing before we could indulge.

Mrs. Deleo seemed to have an endless supply of food in her fridge. Whereas my mom always presented me and my friends with neatly cut carrot and celery sticks, Mrs. Deleo’s snacks were exotic things like fried eggplant and zucchini slices, stuffed peppers, or a few pickled mushrooms. I was thrilled whenever I was asked to stay for dinner at Joan’s house. It was there that I had my first taste of traditionally prepared chicken cacciatore, lasagna, and eggplant parmigiana. Everything Mrs. Deleo prepared tasted different to me compared to my mother’s cooking.

One evening I came home after having eaten at Joan’s and said to my mother, “Dinner was so good.”

“What did Joan’s mother make?” she asked.

“Pork chops.”

My mother was incensed. “I make pork chops. You barely touch them. How did she make hers?” she demanded. I shrugged, then added, “They were just delicious.” This seemed to infuriate my mother further. Next thing I knew she was on the phone with Joan’s mother. I heard my mother say, “I grill or broil them, and serve them with homemade apple sauce.” After a pause, “Oh, I see. I’ll try that. Yes, believe me, I know how kids can be.” A few days later we had breaded pork chops seasoned with Italian herbs. They were served with oven-roasted potatoes. My mother watched me expectantly. What can I say? The grass is always greener, which is to say they seemed to taste better at Joan’s house. Maybe it was the wine.

Anyway, back to the very beginning of the story and my own dinner last night. In Italy, “hunter-style” or alla cacciatora, is a technique used for preparing fowl. It is fairly simple, suggesting the recipe was used by the hunters themselves. Depending on the region, it can be made with varying amounts of both wine and tomatoes. In Tuscany, sage is the herb most often used, as opposed to rosemary or oregano. Find what works for you. I like it served on wide egg noodles. A simple salad, dressed with red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, rounds out the meal.

Hunter’s chicken (Chicken cacciatore)

Serves 4

  • 6 chicken thighs
  • 6 chicken legs (or you can use 1 whole chicken, cut up)
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • ¾ cup red or white wine
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • ¼ cup + 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1-2 teaspoons mixed dried Italian herbs, oregano, or rosemary
  • 2 dozen cremini or white button mushrooms, halved

Generously salt and pepper chicken pieces.

Heat ¼ cup of the oil in a Dutch oven or skillet on medium heat. Sauté chicken pieces in batches for 6-8 minutes, turning once. Set aside.

Add onion to pot and cook until soft, 3 or 4 minutes. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Raise heat to medium-high and add wine. Let cook until the alcohol evaporates, 1-2 minutes, then add the tomatoes, sugar and red pepper flakes.

Return chicken to pot and immerse it in the sauce. Cook, partially covered, on a simmer, moving pieces on occasion, for 45 minutes.

While chicken is cooking, heat the 3 tablespoons of oil in a sauté pan on high heat. Sauté mushrooms, stirring constantly, until cooked through but still firm, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

When chicken is cooked, add the mushrooms and stir to heat through. Serve immediately. Hope that there are leftovers because this is even better the following day.

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