Today was the first day I felt a familiar chill in the air. And just as the trees outside show hints of amber, my thoughts travel back in time to Siena, Firenze, Montalcino— driving carefree and absolutely enamored with the Tuscan landscape.
I was visiting friends lucky enough to live there. With way too much luggage, I left at the start of fall and stayed until after New Year’s. It was one of the best and most memorable trips I had ever taken. The earthy flavors and aromas of this recipe are not only reminiscent of the fall season, but a very special time in my life when a seemingly impossible Tuscan dream became reality.
I remember one occasion when my friend Alessandro invited a group of us to dinner at his country house, or “la certosa”— the monastery, as he so playfully called it. We were just five minutes outside the walls of Siena. The rustic charm, sweet silence, herb filled gardens, olive trees and neighboring fields of gold made listening to one of Sting’s greatest hits back home that much more of a tear jerker.
There was a strange warm front looming across a large portion of northern Italy that year. It stretched as far south as Rome, where people wore jean jackets and scarves by day (including yours truly)—right up until Christmas Eve! On this particular fall evening we were fortunate enough to enjoy crostini with crema di funghi and fegato (mushrooms and liver), local cheeses and wine, then comfortably roast meat over the fireplace. And that was just the beginning. Slowly but surely we took the party outdoors—eating, drinking, laughing and taking in the twinkling city lights in the distance. And that my friends, is how to enjoy la bella Toscana.
Pollo alla cacciatora is truly a beautiful Tuscan recipe through and through. Cacciatora (huntress) or Cacciatore (hunter) implies the meal is cooked hunter’s style. That means you can expect carrots, celery, onions and herbs such as bay leaf and rosemary. Now chickens may be hard to catch but they certainly were not hunted like wild boar. In fact, they were not part of Italy’s culinary tapestry until the 15th century, which leads many food historians to believe this recipe was originally intended for rabbit. Coming from Southeast Asia, chickens were originally used as a form of violent entertainment—cockfighting. It took Italian nobles to realize their full potential, putting them on the menu for only the finest banquets.
Six hundred years ago chickens were also raised with far more care and at a much smaller scale compared to today’s mass production. My father-in-law raises chickens and believe me when I say the difference in meat quality—the taste, the texture, is unreal. If his chickens are ridiculously good, can you imagine what a noble-worthy chicken tasted like? Out of this world, I’m sure!
Restaurant goers beware, if you find yourself dining in a place that serves pollo alla cacciatora over pasta or worse, in some form of cream sauce, I suggest you consider the following: 1) order something else or 2) just leave and 3) never speak of cream and pollo alla cacciatora in the same sentence with real Italians. It’s pure sacrilege.
There are a million variations of pollo alla cacciatora (or Chicken Cacciatore). Depending on what part of Italy you are visiting, this recipe can be made with white or red wine, peppers, mushrooms, and even capers. The recipe here is close to the original with a few tweaks. For starters, the original is made with white wine. For this dish, I enjoy cooking with a good Tuscan red, like a San Giovese or Chianti. I’ve also added kalamata olives and Sicilian anchovies in olive oil. Yes, that’s right…anchovies. Now trust me when I say you will not taste them. Instead they melt away like butter adding tons of flavor. It’s a little secret from some of the best Italian cooks, so give it a try! Again, I promise, “no surf and turf!”
And since we are celebrating wine all month long, check out my latest collaboration with wine expert Hank Zona of The Grapes Unwrapped as he pairs wine to classic fall dishes…this one in particular suggested by yours truly, and a second dish by fellow food blogger, Cathy Roma of What should I make for! Chef Rich Krug of Krug Catering at Orange Lawn Tennis Club cooks it all up restaurant style— and it was delicious!