Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cooking with Aleandra

Mondays are shopping days for Dr. C. and I.  There is a huge super market near Perugia, about 15 minutes away where I can get anything from Lindt cocoa to my very own leg of Prosciutto di Parma.
The store is called Hyper-Coop, as opposed to the smaller Coop's that are located in towns like Spello and Trevi.  Dr. C. is not a shopper, so I take the cart and maneuver it as fast as I can through the aisles (picture supermarket sweep but Italian style) so we can get in, get out and get on the road.  We fill in with other things here in town, but for big shopping we head to Perugia.
True confessions time, I am not a fan of chicken, at least the chicken we get in the U.S.  Dry and tasteless (yes, even the organic birds) I have a hard time cooking it at home, since I really don't like the results.  Yesterday I bought this adorable chicken, thinking that maybe I could make my grandmother's chicken cacciatore for dinner.  First of all look at how they truss this chicken, putting a slit into the skin, and pushing the legs through.  I hated to mess this up, but for grandma's chicken you need to cut it up into pieces.
This is my Nonna, Aleandra Ciuffoli Pasquini on a trip to Canada.  Nonna was born in Gubbio, a small hill town here in Umbria, about 30 to 45 minutes from Spello.  She and my grandfather were married when she was barely 18.  My Nonno emigrated to Old Forge, PA in the early 1900's and worked in the coal mines for 2 years, before Nonna and two sons sailed to Boston to eventually meet him in Old Forge.  I really can not even imagine how they did it, not knowing the language, and customs, and not being able to find the foods that were familiar to them.  When my grandfather saw that his sons would have to work in the coal mines, they moved to Northern New Jersey raising 5 children, and surrounding themselves with extended family who had emigrated from Gubbio and towns nearby.  And there were always picnics, huge steaks on the grill, potatoes roasted in the embers, and salads dressed with green olive oil and red wine vinegar.
Left to right, Aleandra, my Mom  probably pregnant with me, and my Nonno Giuseppe Pasquini
My Nonna was probably the best cook I've ever met; not a chef, but an incredible cook, knowing instinctively what a dish needed, and serving some of the best food I've ever eaten.  Eating in her kitchen constituted some of the best memories of my childhood, and later adulthood.  I loved being around her, with her unconditional love, and the aromas from the kitchen.  Like most Italian mamas she didn't let me help, maybe once or twice I could crimp the edges of the ravioli, or snip the tips off the beans, or peel potatoes, but there was no cooking allowed, so I watched and learned.  This dish is one she made often, and although my cousins and I have tried to replicate it in our own kitchens, it's never quite like hers----we get close, but it's not exactly hers.  I think the reason is the chicken, as I proved yesterday.  Here is the recipe, and I hope you'll try it, buy an organic chicken, preferably vegetarian fed, you'll pay more, but the results will have more flavor.

Nonna's Chicken Cacciatore
Serves 4 to 6

One 2 1/2 to 3 pound whole organic chicken cut into pieces 
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup diced pancetta
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tablespoon chopped  fresh rosemary
1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Wash the chicken in cold water, and cut the breasts in half, so there are 4 pieces.
Pat the chicken dry, season liberally with salt and pepper (like a dry brine)

Cover with paper towels and put into the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, and up to 8 hours.  
In a large skillet, heat the oil, and saute the pancetta until it is crispy.  

Add the chicken to the pan, and brown on all sides, turning frequently.  While the chicken is browning, add the garlic and rosemary to the pan.  

When the chicken is browned on all sides turn up the heat and add the vinegar.  Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and cook another 10 to 15 minutes until the chicken is cooked through. 

 Serve the chicken with rosemary roasted potatoes, and your choice of green vegetable or salad.  

Olive oil, rosemary, sliced garlic, and potatoes, roasted at 400 for about 40 minutes turning occasionally till crispy
So I ate my entire piece of chicken, and loved it; it was juicy, tender, and most of all close to the real deal.
 I have asked Umbrian friends if this is a typical dish from the region and they say yes, but the qualifier is that it's usually made with rabbit instead of chicken---hence the name cacciatore, or hunter's style. The hunter would be in the woods, shoot his game, then cook it over an open fire with what he had, pancetta (cured meat) rosemary found on the forest floor, and some wine or vinegar.  I'm grateful that the generations in my family know how to make it and will carry on Nonna Aleandra's tradition.

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