Walking along country roads in the Arno Valley south of Florence, I’ve seen chickens scuttling here and there in the vineyards, pecking for insects. For farmer-served feed, they’re free to return to the chicken pen. Many are small and russet in color, and are usually in the company of a few imposingly large white chickens (a variety of leghorn, I think) that take the name of the area–pollo valdarno–and are justly famed for their flesh as well as eggs.
In Italy butchers proudly display a free-range chicken (known as pollo ruspante) with its head and feet still attached, the latter’s scuff marks testifying to a life well spent as a forager. These chickens cost significantly more, and they’re worth it.
What I wouldn’t give for one of those chickens right now! Because the fact is that a true free-range chicken is hard to find. Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture and Glynwood, both in New York, take chicken raising seriously but now I’m a thousand miles away and can’t find a local market selling chickens with old-fashioned barnyard credentials. If you succeed in finding such a bird, buy it and you’ll be rewarded with authentically chickeny, deeply satisfying flavor.
The white, flaccid flesh of most U.S. chickens billed as “free range” points to a different upbringing. That’s because USDA regulations are gutless–“free range” means only that chickens have access to an outdoor area. Industrial-scale producers that house 20,000 chickens in a 20-square-foot facility, with a patch of grass at one end, are meeting that incredibly vague standard.
That’s my rant about chicken. But meanwhile there’s dinner to make and I’m in the mood for chicken. So I’ll do what I recommend you do when options are limited–settle for the best organic chicken the supermarket has to offer. Eliminating hormones and chemicals from chicken feed has to be a good thing, though it doesn’t guarantee anything about the way the chicken was raised. I’ll take my good-enough chicken home and braise it, a method that extracts every bit of flavor the bird possesses.
Peperonata, a braised dish of peppers and onions, is usually served on the side but here the vegetables share their flavors with the chicken.
- 1 chicken 3 to 4 pounds, preferably free-range with neck, etc.,* cut into serving pieces and washed well
- 1 medium onion
- 2 or 3 parsley sprigs
- Sea salt or kosher salt
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup red or white wine
- 2 small red and/or yellow bell peppers cut into small squares
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 3 to 4 anchovy fillets pinched into small pieces
- 1/2 cup strained tomatoes such as Pomì or chopped canned plum tomatoes
- Freshly ground black pepper
To make the broth: Combine the wing ends, neck and cleaned gizzard in a medium saucepan; if the chicken was sold with head and feet, throw them in too. Trim and peel the onion, adding the ends and skin to the saucepan; chop and reserve the onion. Cut off the parsley stems; add to the saucepan; coarsely chop and reserve the leaves. Cover the contents of the saucepan with water, add 1 teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer, skimming off any frothy scum and fat that rise to the top, for 20 minutes to 1 hour.
With paper towels, blot the chicken pieces dry and sprinkle with salt. Over medium-high heat, heat enough oil to coat the bottom of a large skillet. Cook the chicken, turning with tongs, until well browned on all sides. Lower the heat and add the wine and about the same amount of broth (dip it out of the saucepan and pour through a small strainer into the skillet); stir and cook until the liquid is reduced, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a platter, pouring any pan juices over it.
Add a little more olive oil to the same skillet. Over medium heat, sauté the chopped onion until golden brown; add the bell peppers and garlic and sauté 1 to 2 minutes longer. Stir in the anchovies, pressing them into the sauce with a wooden spoon until they semi-dissolve. Add the strained tomatoes and an equal amount of the broth.
Return the chicken pieces to the skillet, and stir to combine with the peperonata (pepper mixture). Simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Taste and add more salt (if needed) and pepper. Garnish with the chopped parsley leaves.
* If your chicken doesn't come equipped with all its parts, buy a few extra wings for the broth.