My earliest memories of chicken cacciatore are of the Italian chain restaurant variety, of sauces loaded with chunky bell pepper and an inexplicable blanket or filling of cheese on or inside the chicken. The dish was more heavy than hearty, and as such it was never a favorite of mine. As I got older and my love of Italian food led me to convert to the church of Marcella, Lidia and Mario, I learned there was a better way. A simpler way, in fact, because really, this “hunters-style” braise needs little more than mushrooms, onions, tomato and herbs to make it a cacciatore.
This is a loose adaptation of Mario’s Molto Italiano recipe which keeps his addition of pancetta as well as the delicious garlic and rosemary rub for the chicken, but I’ve chosen to go with whole, small cipollini onions in place of diced, as well as the richer, earthier taste of dried porcini mushrooms in the sauce. Don’t let the browning and peeling/chopping steps put you off, because once everything is in the pot all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the delicious aromas filling your home – the end result is well worth the effort, and a satisfying meal on a blustery winter night.
1 chicken (about 3 lbs.), cut into quarters, or an equivalent amount of skin-on parts of your choice
3 large garlic peeled garlic cloves
Freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons fresh rosemary
1 cup dried porcini
1 cup hot tap water
12 small cipollini onions, peeled and trimmed
2 thick slices pancetta
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup white wine
1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano or marjoram
Several sprigs fresh thyme
Red chile flakes to taste
Arrange the chicken pieces on a platter and pat them dry. In a food processor or mini chopper, pulse the garlic, salt, pepper and rosemary, then add enough olive oil to form a thick paste. Rub the paste all over the chicken pieces and let them sit in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes.
Place porcini in a bowl, cover with hot tap water and let them sit until the mushrooms are soft. Remove the mushrooms from the liquid and set aside. Strain the liquid to remove any grit and reserve.
Warm the olive oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat and add the chicken pieces in batches, allowing them to brown on all sides. When the last chicken pieces have been browned, remove them to a platter, discard the oil and any burnt garlic from the pot and return it to the heat. Add the pancetta and let it render and brown for a few minutes. Add the onions and porcini and a pinch of salt. Make a hot spot on the side of the pan and add the tomato paste, allowing it to cook for a minute or two before stirring it through.
Add the wine and let it come to a boil, then reduce the heat and add the reserved porcini liquid, the tomatoes with their juice, the oregano or marjoram, the thyme sprigs and the chile flakes. Stir well, crushing the tomatoes with the back of a spoon, then return the chicken pieces to the pan along with any juices that have accumulated on the platter. Cover the pan and cook over low heat for 30 minutes or more, until the chicken is cooked through and very tender and the sauce is slightly thickened.
Serve chicken and sauce over soft polenta, garnishing with additional fresh rosemary or thyme if desired.