|Escape to Tuscany in Winter? Yes!
We all need comfort food, especially in the dull days of February (August, if you live in the antipodes). It comes in various forms. For me, rice pudding with raisins fits the bill very nicely. Hot tea with milk. Homemade cookies. Roast chicken…
My sister, a very creative cook, came up with the perfect dish for winter. I was visiting her and she came out with a bowl holding a medium-sized helping of Angel hair pasta. She had ladled over that a rich red sauce containing chunks of chicken with capers and bocconcini, the chicken having been browned, and all of it (but the pasta) baked in a medium oven.
Of course I had to have the recipe, and she gave it to me. Sort of. She had just thrown things together as seemed right. It was. She’s good at such things.
I decided I wanted some of that tonight, so I assembled the ingredients, got the cookware out, turned on the oven, and got to work. And then I thought ‘Why not share?’ So I am. Here is the recipe for the newly named Pollo Al’Italia:
Naturally, you need your ingredients. Since it’s ‘Pollo’, you need chicken. I suppose you could use chicken pieces with skin, but I use chicken breast, cut into chunks. That’s the hard part. The rest is easy.
You assemble what you need:
Olive oil, the stronger the better. Wondra flour (or any flour that’s a little grainy). You need Italian herbs (basil, oregano and, sometimes rosemary). Ground Parmesan or Romano cheese, capers (I prefer the larger ones. Large or small they brighten things), good canned tomatoes, Fresh mozzarella, red wine. Garlic. In other words, the usual suspects. Don’t forget salt and pepper.
You’ll need a deep pan for sauteing, one that will go gracefully into the oven. A smaller bowl for the seasoned flour, a pot for pasta water, a sharp knife with a respectable blade to deal with the chicken. Pot holders.
Turn the oven on to 375. Cut any ickies out of the chicken (those sinews that always like to show up in my chicken), trim the chicken, and throw any pieces you don’t plan to use into a pot of water. Put it on to simmer. Put enough olive oil in your saute pan to cover the bottom and turn the heat to medium.
Mix a cup of flour (do get Wondra; it’s best for this purpose) with 1/4 cup finely grated cheese. Add sat, pepper, Italian herbs and garlic and mix well. You can add some red pepper flakes. To release the flavor, rub it between your palms. Now toss the chunked chicken into the seasoned flour, coating it well. Shake off the excess. Put the bowl of seasoned flour somewhere that your biggest cooking fans (the dog and the cats) wont be likely to encounter it.
Put the chicken in the pan (enjoy the sound of sizzling) and brown it on all sides. I tend to be a little fussy about turning things, Browning is good, and the more you brown your meat, within reason, the better it will taste. Don’t forget to turn the chicken so it browns evenly. This seals in the juices, makes a nice crust, and allows you to turn to the various salivating humans and say, “It’ll be done when I’m good and ready!
Now is the time to get out the tomatoes – this is not the time to buy the cheapest in the store. Open the can and pour the juice into the pan. Then, using a stick blender, slightly blend the tomatoes and then pour in the wine – about half a cup. I prefer to use a cabernet or a zinfandel. They are a little more full-bodied than a Merlot. I like Merlots. They are charming, easygoing wines, and it’s hard to find one that is bad, but for this application they lack oomph.
Now pour the wine/tomato mixture over the chicken and dot the whole with boccocini. If you can’t find that, fresh mozzarella diced into larger chunks does just fine. It looks pretty good right now, but waiting never goes amiss. Into the oven it goes – 375 degrees for half an hour. This gives you a chance to clean the cooking area, cut up the ooky chicken and simmer it for the pets. You can snatch a glass of wine – any of that Zin or Cabernet left. Then you rememer the pasta and hurry off to put water on for it. The pasta cooks for five minutes (you ARE using angel hair right?
Dish up the pasta – not too much, and don’t forget to set some aside to eat with butter (not the fake stuff) garlic and cheese). That taken care of, you take the chicken out of the oven, smell the warm scents of cheese and tomato and wine all together with garlic, oregano, basil… The balls of bocconcini have sunk into the sauce, but they are there. The chicken is tender, not dry, all the flavors are blended. All you need to do is wait until the next day, giving it a chance to sit, to mingle, to mellow as tomato-based dishes always do. Tell the family, the dog, the cats (there’s nothing here they can’t eat unless you put some onion in) that they need to wait a day for everything to mellow.
Who am I kidding? Dish it up, dig in and enjoy it. And thank my sister, who invented the recipe!