My dutch oven has been seeing a lot of action lately. I suppose it’s just that time of year when you want to dig your heaviest pot out of the back of the cabinet and fill it up with wonderful ingredients and allow it to simmer away until its contents are tender, rich, and filling. But what I love even more about these one-pot wonders is how forgiving the recipes are, which might explain why there’s as many versions of chicken cacciatore as there are cooks. Although definitively Italian in origin, you’d be hard pressed not to know a soccer mom with a crock pot that doesn’t have her own take on this.
But back to those Italians. Pollo alla cacciatora translates to hunter’s style chicken. For that reason, I like my cacciatore sauce to be thick and rustic, paying tribute to vegetables and herbs that might have been foraged back in the day. I skip the French mirepoix, no carrots or celery needed, and instead opt for some lovely Italian themed ingredients. Sliced garlic cloves, red peppers, San Marzano tomatoes, capers, lots of fresh basil, and a crisp pinot grigio. Ok, I made myself hungry again.
Pollo alla Cacciatora (Chicken Cacciatore)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup AP flour
1 whole chicken (5-6lbs), butchered into pieces (or about 8 whole chicken thighs)
1 onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced lengthwise
1-12 oz pack of mushrooms, cut into thick slices
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
1 cup white wine, preferably Italian
1 26-oz can of whole or chopped San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 tsp dried pepper flakes
2-3 tbsp drained capers (go for 3 is you like them)
A large handful of basil, chopped
Parmesan cheese for topping
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
If you’re butchering a whole chicken, I recommend prepping two thighs, two drumsticks, and splitting the two breasts in half so that you end up with 8 similarly sized pieces total (freeze the wings, back, and innards to make nice stock in the future). But if you’re a family that fights over the dark meat, go ahead and make this dish just with the thighs. Either way, keep that skin on and the bones in, even if you plan to remove the skin when you eat. The skin protects the meat through the long cook time, keeping it tender and preventing it from drying out. Season your chicken well on all sides with salt and pepper, then dredge lightly in flour, shaking off the excess.
In a dutch oven, heat 1 tbsp olive oil plus 1 tbsp butter over medium-high heat. Brown the chicken in two batches, about 4 minutes per side until the chicken is well browned and the skin is crisp. Set aside.
Grab those lovely sliced onions, peppers, mushrooms and the fresh thyme and drop them into the drippings. Saute for 3-4 minutes until they begin to soften and pick up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Now add the garlic and saute an additional 2 minutes, just to take the raw bite out of it. Go ahead and add some seasoning to the dish right now: a healthy pinch of salt and a good grind of black pepper.
Pour in the wine, taking time to scrape the sides/bottom of the pan to pick up any more bits, and simmer just to let some of the alcohol burn off, about 3-4 minutes. Now dump in the tomatoes. If you’re using whole tomatoes, you should either chop them, or get into the rustic spirit by squeezing them whole straight into the pan. Either way, be sure to add all that wonderful juice as well. Stir in the red pepper flakes and capers, then return the chicken to the pan, along with any juices that have accumulated while resting. Bring the whole thing to a simmer.
When the dish is simmering, cover tightly and place into the oven. It will only take 20-30 minutes to cook the chicken through, but I like to let this slowly simmer for at least an hour until the sauce has thickened, the chicken is very tender and the dark meat is beginning to fall off the bone. If you’ve got a full hour and a half, go for it. The dish will only get more flavorful. Just check on it every 30 minutes to give it a stir to make sure nothing’s sticking or getting too dark on the bottom.
While the chicken’s in the oven. Prepare your side dish. We served ours over top some lightly buttered spaghetti squash that we quickly steamed in the microwave. But this dish is delicious served over everything from egg noodles, linguine, creamy polenta, or even parmesan smashed red potatoes.
When the chicken comes out of the oven, stir in most of that chopped basil, reserving a little to top each plate. Check the sauce for seasoning. Mine needed a little more salt and pepper and just a touch of sugar to help bring out the tomatoes’ natural sweetness. Pile a piece or two of chicken overtop your carb of choice and dress with lots of sauce, grated parm, and a touch more of basil. Bellissimo!
If you’re cooking for two, I recommend taking some effort out of your leftovers. Wait til the chicken cools down, then shred it by hand, discarding the bones and skin and return the meat to the sauce. Stir to combine then scoop it over top your leftover pasta and dream about it all the way until lunch tomorrow.