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Tuesday’s Project: Chicken Cacciatore or “Hunter’s Chicken”

This Tuesday, we’ll celebrate the end of the game season and the end of Autumn with… poultry.

“Hunter’s Chicken” is one of the classic Americana dishes of the 1950’s with origins not based in America.

Hold on a second. Repeat that again for me. “Hunter’s Chicken?” What is that? It sounds like some stew Davy Crockett may have concocted with mutton, squirrel, and whatever leaves in the Kentucky forest he could forage.

No, no. No mutton here. For that, go to Keen’s Steakhouse in Manhattan for the chop. This “Hunter’s Chicken” is not a gimmicky name. Everybody knows of “Hunter’s Chicken,” or at least has heard of it at some point when browsing through cookbooks.

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“Hunter’s Chicken” is the translation for Chicken Cacciatore. Lately I’ve been reaching back to the 1950’s and 1960’s, intrigued by the classic American “Continental” dishes, often inspired heavily by France or Italy, that led dishes being named. Lobster Thermidor. Chicken Kiev. Beef Wellington. When dining out, the high society enjoyed Sole Marguéry instead of today’s de- constructed this, powdered that, pigeon “three ways.” Preparations were grand, full of pomp and ceremony. The food itself? Simple and robust, yet luxurious from truffles, foie gras, and fine European imported herbs and cheeses.

Chicken Cacciatore is no rich, elaborate Lobster Thermidor. It is “Hunter’s Chicken” because this is what the hunters of Southern Italy would eat at the end of a long, bitterly cold November day. This is not what the aristocracy of Florence ate.

As always when it comes to basic, wholesome classic dishes, we must turn to the recipe provided in The Joy of Cooking. Chicken Cacciatore is quite simple and an excellent choice for a weeknight dinner if you remember to immediately get everything cooking, then let it simmer for an hour-hour fifteen minutes, while you get the mail and watch the news.

Sauté shallots and garlic with a combination of flour covered chicken breasts and thighs, knowing that the golden, tenderest pieces are bone-in, skin-on thighs. Then keep back-tracking for what will be less rewarding taste-wise, but healthiest to the boneless, skinless chicken breast. It’s the same case with any chicken preparation, whether in a stew or yakitori.

Once the shallots and garlic are caramelized, add the liquid base of white wine and chicken stock, along with the seasonings and mushrooms. Get some courage from a splash of Brandy at the end. Then simmer.

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Meanwhile, you can work on that craft cocktail or catch up on errands. Most likely the hunters of Southern Italy would down a few Peronis. Interestingly in this particular recipe, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker mention that these hunters always had tomatoes and mushrooms handy. Tomatoes are plentiful in the Southern Italian climate, but mushrooms are much more a local product of Northern Italy. Either way, all you need is a few herbs, a cheap white wine, tomatoes, mushrooms, and poultry.

I myself am partisan to coq au vin‘s red Burgundy based broth, instead of the lighter white wine base for Chicken Cacciatore. Plus, coq au vin benefits from the crunch, salinity and meat essence of bacon. Then again, what doesn’t benefit from bacon as everyone these days points out. On the other hand, the addition of marjoram adds a beautiful floral note to the Cacciatore broth.

There are all sorts of variations you can do with Chicken Cacciatore. I took a page from coq au vin and added sliced carrot. Giada de Laurentiis adds oregano leaves, capers, and bell pepper, while subtracting the mushrooms. In the 1979 New York Times Cookbook, Craig Claiborne’s “Chicken Sauté Chasseur” might include the French name for “hunter,” but still follows the main Chicken Cacciatore guidelines with mushrooms, white wine, canned tomatoes, and dried thyme. Instead of marjoram, Claiborne adds tarragon and he also throws in 1/4 cup of butter for good measure. I’d stick to the Brandy instead of butter.

From the same era, Pierre Franey does not have a direct “Chicken Cacciatore” recipe. Franey in the 1980 The New York Times 60- Minute Gourmet suggests a “Sautéed Chicken with Wine and Herbs” that includes butter in the broth and the only herb is thyme.

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It’s fascinating to see the myriad of classic chicken preparations Claiborne in particular offers: “Tetrazzini” (don’t skip the toasted almonds!), “Mexican,” “Marengo,” “in a Pineapple Shell,” or “à la Pojarski.” He even includes Brunswick Stew, a classic hunter’s stew with…the aforementioned squirrel.

Feel free to add squirrel to any of these recipes. Or as I learned from my hosts while living in France, no chicken recipe isn’t improved without switching rabbit for chicken.

One final note– double the sauce. Every bite of chicken needs the sauce. And, keep the breast pieces cut into smaller morsels to avoid the inevitable dry chicken breast. With the Cacciatore, a bed of noodles is the classic preparation. Go for some thick, crusty levain bread instead, and consider the added mushrooms, bell pepper, and carrots the other side. With a bottle of Pinot Noir or a good slate-nuanced Gruner Veltliner, or even a more oaky, delicate Chardonnay, you’re all set for a meal after a long day of hunting, whether that was bargain hunting at the mall or game hunting in the forest.

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