It’s hunting season in the Tuscan countryside and we occasionally hear gunshots in the distance. Which, through a sequence of random associations, led me to thoughts of “hunter’s style” chicken alla cacciatora.
As the story goes, the hunter’s wife made chicken like this to feed her husband, returning from a long day in the woods.
It’s just a story, of course, and I’ve always thought of chicken alla cacciatora as an example of uninspired Italian-American cooking, bland and drowning in what might as well be a tomato-ey pasta sauce.
But, glancing through a popular Italian magazine called Cucina Moderna, I saw an article calling it a “classic” dish belonging to the home country’s canon.
Their recipes counterbalanced the sweetness of plum tomatoes with potent herbs–rosemary and bay leaves—plus a few anchovies. One version called for underpinning the sauce with black olives and another with dried porcini. None of that sounded wrong.
Digging a little more, I was surprised to find references tracing chicken alla cacciatora to Tuscany. So I asked Maria and Letizia, friends who have lived in rural Tuscany for their entire lives, what they knew about this dish. It didn’t seem to be in the repertoire of either, but Maria ventured that it should have herbs—rosemary and perhaps juniper berries—and tomatoes. Don’t overdo it with the tomatoes, cautioned Letizia, whose hunter husband and son specialize in wild hare.
Unlike some dishes (say, pici al cacio e pepe), there don’t seem to be rules about chicken alla cacciatora that Italians would fight in the streets about. So I decided to go with my own instincts for coaxing chicken to deliver hearty autumnal flavors.
The Valdarno area south of Florence is known for robust chickens that spend their lives pecking for food among the vineyards. I reinforced that natural flavor by wrapping them in thin slices of rigatino–a Tuscan version of pancetta cured with salt, pepper and sometimes wild fennel–and added piney-tasting juniper berries and rosemary.
Letizia is right about the tomatoes, I think. Less is more. I used moderate amounts of pureed tomatoes and white wine to give body to a light sauce with chunky vegetable bits. By pureed tomatoes, I don’t mean the tomato puree sold in cans, but a simple puree of tomatoes (passata di pomodoro, in Italian); see recipe note for details.
Fall is also the season for wild mushrooms, so I surrounded the chicken, nestled on a bed of polenta, with sautéed pioppini mushrooms resembling dark enoki. Hen of the woods mushrooms, shiitake, cremini or a mixture would also be good choices. For the lucky mushroom-hunting souls who live in places like California or northern Arizona, porcini are an option.
Other birds have a better-deserved reputation for flavor than chicken, of course. I prepared quail in the same way and arranged the birds with their sauce on a bed of farro. With invigorating woodsy flavor, it delivered on the “alla cacciatora” promise.
This recipe uses the robust flavors of pancetta, juniper berries, rosemary and tomatoes to make a classic fall dish. As with many braised meats, it tastes even better the next day.
- 2 1/2 to 3 pounds bone-in chicken parts, preferably thighs or legs, skin removed
- kosher or sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces very thinly sliced pancetta or dry-cured bacon
- 1 teaspoon juniper berries
- leaves from 1 or 2 sprigs rosemary
- 1 large onion chopped
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 or 2 carrots diced small
- 1 celery stalk diced small
- 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup pureed tomatoes passata di pomodoro (see note)
Sprinkle chicken pieces lightly with salt and pepper. Wrap each with a single layer of pancetta. Crush juniper berries with a mortar and pestle or side of a cook’s knife, and chop finely with rosemary.
In a large skillet, sauté onion over medium-high heat in 2 tablespoons olive oil until golden brown, stirring often. Add carrots, celery and garlic, stirring until softened. Scrape pan contents into a bowl.
Add a little olive oil if needed to the same pan. Saute prepared chicken until golden brown, turning carefully.
Return onion mixture to pan. Sprinkle with chopped rosemary and juniper berries. Add white wine and sizzle briefly before stirring in pureed tomatoes. Reduce heat and simmer gently, partly covered, until chicken is fork tender, about 30 minutes. Add a little water as needed for a saucy consistency.
Arrange chicken pieces on a bed of polenta. Spoon sauce over them. Surround with sautéed mushrooms such as hen of the woods, shiitake or crimini.
Variation: Substitute bone-in or boneless quail for chicken. Serve with their sauce on farro boiled in water seasoned with salt. Garnish with black or green olives if you like. Note: Pomi is one brand of pureed tomatoes (passata di pomodoro). Alternatively, blend good-quality canned tomatoes in a blender. Do not use canned tomato puree.