“Cacciatore” is Italian for “hunter.” The idea, when you make, say, chicken cacciatore, is that you’re making it in a sort of rustic hunter style—the way a hunter might whip up a meal out of the proceeds of a successful hunt.
Ordinarily I do not care so much about what the formal titles of food preparations mean. I want the food to taste good and that’s about it. But I find the implications of “cacciatore” incredibly appealing right now, stuck inside, in a world exactly the size of my home, surrounded in all directions by snow and ice and coronavirus and not really able to go anywhere for a whole host of reasons. I like best of all the mental image of cooking at an actual fire, in a cold but not snowbound forest, outside of some town; it’s a way to transport myself, even if only imaginarily, to an experience of cold weather and seclusion from the nice stuff of society that I could actually aspire to, instead of resenting. It’s fun. It’s a nice little vacation.
Of course, when you go (when you went, back when you could go anywhere) to the average red-sauce joint in these United States and order cacciatore, what you get is basically the familiar Sunday tomato sauce, over pasta, but with chicken. It’s fine! That’s what I grew up with, in fact, and I loved it and love it. And, truth be told, the way I make cacciatore nowadays, a hundred iterations on that childhood stuff later, isn’t all that different—and yes, most of the time, I serve it with some fettuccine tossed in the sauce. It’s fine! It’s fine to do it that way.
What I’m advocating for in this blog, however, is a way to do it that allows you to indulge in the fantasy that you are cooking something hunter style, or anyway in a style that you can imagine might possibly work in some probably ridiculous vision of what a hunt could be, in an absolutely fictional idea of some rustic Italian fantasy that never existed and could never exist. A psychotic break, if you will. But a welcome one. I understand perhaps you are not here to be ushered through a florid delusion of cooking food in the woods, but unfortunately for you I am part-owner of this damn website and can do as I please. Let’s cook some chicken cacciatore.
Here are some things that you will need.
I urge you to divide your cacciatore ingredients into two groups. The first group is Things You Brought Along On Your Imaginary Hunting Trip Into The Woods Or Whatever. Imagine your (jaunty, cool, possibly leather) bag that you have brought along on your simple, rustic hunting venture. Does it have a chicken in it? No it does not, because that would be kind of gross, but more importantly because then you could not describe what you are doing as “hunting,” but rather “bringing some groceries into the woods for no reason.” Therefore the chicken will go in the second group.
But you can imagine that you brought along a big yellow onion and a few cloves of garlic, anticipating that you would be cooking cacciatore. Cut the onion into thick strips, French style; peel the garlic and slice it or give it a rough chop. Do not mince it! You do not have a nice cutting board with you on your imaginary hunting trip. You are just hacking up the garlic with a pocket knife.
You can imagine that you brought along a lil’ tin of anchovy fillets packed in olive oil. What self-respecting (entirely imaginary) cool old-timey Italian hunter guy would leave anchovy fillets behind on a jaunt into the woods? None. Speaking of olive oil, your bag also has a small bottle of olive oil in it. You can imagine that your bag has a bottle of cheap wine in it. Is it white wine, or red? It’s your frickin’ imagination, buddy! Either is fine; I prefer white for this. You can imagine that your bag had room for one modest-sized can of whole peeled tomatoes in it. Not the frickin’ 90-ounce can that is like a boulder! This is not smooth Sunday tomato sauce that just happens to have chicken in it instead of meatballs and spare ribs and such. It is a whole different thing! This is chicken braised in stuff that happens to include tomato. The 28-ounce can is the absolute biggest you can go for here.
Your bag also has seasonings in it: salt, black pepper, some nice red pepper flakes. As a bag does.
Now, look into your imaginary bag. Does your bag have a pound of dried pasta in it? I submit that it does not, for the simple reason that you are not frickin’ Samwise Gamgee, and therefore you did not lug a freaking pasta pot with you into the wilderness, and you simply are not allowed to crunch dry pasta on any deranged vision-quest led by me. But! Your bag may in fact have a modest loaf of crusty bread in it! That is “the hunter’s starch food,” as they say in the fake-European old-timey society of the mind.
Many cacciatore preparations, including perhaps the most authentic and traditional of them, include sliced peppers. If you want to include sliced peppers, include sliced peppers! Later on, when we get to the part where you’re cooking onions, include your sliced peppers. It’s fine! For me, cacciatore is a sort of hearty, autumnal if not wintery food, and peppers are more of a summery type of deal, so I leave them out.
That’s it for the stuff you brought with you. All the rest of the ingredients belong to the second group: What You Can Imagine Finding In Your Wise, Expert Foraging Of The Beautiful Imaginary Forest. You can “forage” for some mushrooms, and wash (in the babbling brook!) and slice them. You can find some rosemary and some thyme, nice wintery herbs that for whatever reason seem more plausible as things to find in the woods than, say, parsley or basil. And you can find some chicken. Let’s talk about that very briefly.
Obviously the most faithful imagining of this scenario will involve a whole bird, sectioned into parts; after all, if you are hunting for a bird to eat, it is likely to be a whole bird, and not a twitching nightmare mass of only the tastiest of bird parts. If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. On the other hand, it has probably been like 5,000 years since anybody had to “hunt” for a chicken, so we are not exactly sticking to the most rigorous possible scenario, here. In any event nothing much good has ever come from braising a chicken breast. Personally, my recommendation is that you get a few bone-in skin-on chicken thighs, and a few chicken drumsticks, and use those, because that is the tastiest and most satisfying way to go. Plan on a thigh and a drumstick (or a dark-meat chicken quarter!) for each person.
Hey, let’s cook! It’s time to cook.
Sprinkle some salt on the chicken parts and let them sit with it for a little while, while you heat up your trusty deep-sided skillet or (even better) Dutch oven* over a medium-high stove (in your imagination this can be a happy little campfire, snapping and popping and hissing). When the vessel is good and hot, add a minor glug of oil and brown your chicken parts in there; for the thighs, you need only worry about the skin side. Give ’em, oh, three or four or five uninterrupted minutes with their skin down there against the hot cooking surface, then remove them to a plate and set them aside.
(*You’ll need to plan your choice of vessels, here. At a certain point this thing will need to contain all of your ingredients, including all of the chicken you use, all at the same time. So probably you are looking at a Dutch oven-sized vessel, unless you have either a fairly small party to serve or a very very large skillet to use.)
I am sorry to tell you that there will not be crispy chicken skin in the finished cacciatore; by the time the chicken is done braising, the skin will be as soft as butter. What you’re doing right now is rendering out some of the fat so that you can cook mushrooms and aromatics and stuff in it. Do this in stages. Mushrooms first, in my opinion; chuck the ‘shrooms into the pan and sprinkle them with salt. First they’ll release a lot of mushroomy liquid into the pan, and you can scrape around in there with your trusty cooking implement to lift off any chickeny stuff that got seared onto the cooking surface; then, after the mushroomy liquid mostly evaporates, the mushrooms will begin sautéing in the chicken fat, and they’ll get pleasantly browned and aromatic and they’ll soak up much of the fat. That was the idea. Now the delicious chicken fat can be present in the finished cacciatore in the form of extra-tasty mushrooms, rather than in the form of grease. (Grease is fine! This is rough and simple cooking, and in my opinion it should come out a little oily. But capturing some of that fat in the mushrooms is just good. It makes them taste better.)
Scoop the ‘shrooms out of there and into a little bowl, and chuck the onions into the pan (with another sprinkling of salt) to cook in however much fat is left in there. You do not need to be particularly gentle with the onions; it’s fine and perhaps even good if they brown here and there. Just give them 10 minutes of hot cooking, with the occasional toss by your wooden spoon or silicone spatula or whatever; they’ll soften and sweeten and turn a bit translucent, and that’s enough. Chuck in a few anchovy fillets—five or six or all of them! Be brave!—and move things around; they’ll dissolve and start sticking to the bottom of the pan within a couple of minutes.
Next, toss in your sliced or chopped garlic, along with a big hearty pinch of those red pepper flakes. You should smell the garlic cooking almost instantly; within 30 seconds or so it should begin changing color. When that happens, pour in some of the wine. Let’s say, oh, two cups of it. Use your implement again to scrape up the browned stuff on the bottom of the pan while the wine simmers. Now you have a nice tart- and gently fishy-smelling broth in there. Dump your can of tomatoes in there. Ordinarily I would give you some speech about crushing the tomatoes in your bare fist like a vengeful god crushing the unbelievers, but here we are aiming for as chunky and informal a finished product as we can manage (and also in the imaginary woods of our hunting journey, it is not all that easy to wash your hands). Just pour the tomatoes in there. You can sorta halfassedly squish them against the sides of the pan with your implement, if you like.
Now it’s time to return the chicken and mushrooms to the pan. You’ll notice it’s likely a tight fit in there. That’s OK; the chicken will subside a little as its meat braises and relaxes and as its remaining fat renders out into the liquid, and the tomatoes will break down, releasing more liquid and taking up less space. Gently toss things around so that the chicken parts are as evenly coated and submerged as you can manage; if any of them are entirely un-submerged, you can add a little water or some splashes of wine to raise the level of the liquid in there.
Within a few minutes, the liquid will have reached a burbling simmer. Drop the heat to as low as it’ll go (in your imagination, this equates to moving the pan farther from the hottest part of the fire), put a lid on there, and find something to do. Within an hour the chicken will be cooked through, but the real magic is in letting it go for two or even three hours, until it’s so tender the meat slides off the bone if you look at it sideways. Whatever your plan is, 45 minutes or so before you plan on eating, tie up a little bouquet of rosemary and thyme sprigs, dunk it down into the liquid in the pot, and put the lid back on. Rosemary in particular is very powerful stuff and can make your food taste like a Christmas tree if you overuse it; just one nice lil’ sprig of rosemary will do, plus a wee handful of thyme sprigs, and only for 45 minutes, so they accent the food instead of overwhelming it.
Hey, wow, look! Down in the bottom of the bag, where you hadn’t noticed! A little wedge of hard cheese. Amazing. Serve your cacciatore, lustrous and heavenly smelling, in wide, shallow bowls, a thigh and a leg per person, with some of the onions and mushrooms and tomatoes and liquid scooped over the top. Drizzle some extra-virgin olive oil over it, and grate some of that cheese (uh, I guess you’re using a rock for this, in your imagination? Honestly the fantasy is kind of falling apart at this point, chased away by the sight and smell of the actual physical stuff) on there. You can warm the loaf of bread in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes to get it crackly and aromatic. Dredge torn hunks of it through the liquid in your bowl; pile mushrooms and tender chicken onto it; make a mess of yourself. Look what you caught and what you made, out there in the wild.