_ Pollo Cacciatora, chicken cacciatore, is a staple of the Itallian American Kitchen. In America, this dish is usually called, Chicken Cacciatore, Hunter’s Chicken.“Cacciatore” is the word in Italian for “hunter.” But that does not seem to be the original Italian name. In Italy the recipe is called “Pollo alla Cacciatora,” which means, not the "hunter's chicken," but "the hunter’s wife’s chicken." Now, if you think about the American name, “hunter’s chicken,” it doesn’t make too much sense.If a hunter is a hunter, why would he be bringing home a chicken?A skillful hunter would be eating the game he has bagged.But suppose his hunt has not been so lucky?What would he resort to eating? Whatever his wife might prepare: a chicken from the yard.
At one time, when I was a kid, some fifty years ago, Chicken cacciatore was a standard of Italian American home cooking and a significant entry on the menus of old time Italian American restaurants. Those were the days of red checked table clothes, bottles of Chianti in straw baskets. Bread sticks and the “red sauce,” that they called “gravy.” Back then, folks wanted three things in their Italian food. They wanted dense tomato sauce. They wanted sugar. And they wanted salt. Their taste was centered on a heavy punch. They wanted to be hit over the head with aggressive flavors and texture. To that end, the subtle tastes of traditional recipes were removed or replaced in favor of the smothering Sunday red gravy.
I never knew that there was anything else until I went to Italy as a student. It was the sixties.Commercial jet aircraft made travel to Europe accessible to a new middle class population. Americans began to experience Italian foods in their original setting. For some, the Italian original versions of the foods that thought they knew were not a pleasant experience.When some Americans ordered spaghetti, they wanted to know where the meatballs were and why the “gravy” wasn’t dense and sweet.Other Americans however, took great pleasure in the lighter Italian preparations, the delicate use of tomatoes, and the integrity of ingredients not smothered in red gravy
This was the same time Julia Child opened America’s eyes to real cooking.Here too, the revelation only had meaning for a few. But, nonetheless, Julia took this interested few to a new world that did not depend on Betty Crocker and pre-fab Swanson TV Dinners. Thus, Julia Child and international travel sparked a very slow transformation that began changing everything in the American kitchen among those who had an interest in food and cooking.
_ It wasn’t just the introduction of refined French methods that made a difference.There was something of what the Germans call the “zeitgeist:” a “spirit of the times.”Things were changing.We wanted something new and fresh and different. The old Sunday gravy that buried everything in red tomato syrup was overthrown by delicate chopped fresh tomatoes quickly sautéed in olive oil, or if not by fresh tomatoes by a can of quality peeled San Marzano tomatoes roughly crushed by hand.Then, in the past few years, another door into cooking opened wide: Google.Suddenly it seemed that there was nothing we could not know about any subject. And, if you could read another language, there was “Google France,” or “Google Italy,” and even “Google Hong Kong.”For those interested in learning new recipes first hand with web sites of the actual country of origin every gate was opened to new experiences.
So, with Google Italy as the gate keeper off I went to try to rediscover “Chicken Cacciatore,” or rather, as I found, “Chicken Cacciatora.”Recipe after recipe surfaced. As with so many home type, peasant foods, there seemed to be as many recipes as there were people who made them. But, there were certain elements that these recipes had in common. It’s worth noting that the common ingredients in these recipes were the very components that vanished from the Italian American version. And, what’s more, these ingredients are what we now call. “umami,” that Asian, fifth savory taste.And what were these elements? Pancetta, (or bacon), anchovies and olives.Another element I found in some Italian recipes was wild mushrooms. Since wild mushrooms are not something available in the States, I did not include them. I don’t think our common white mushrooms have enough strength to make a difference in the final taste. But, if you’d like, add them.
Through my research with the help of Google Italy, here is my foray into reconstructing a more traditional Pollo Cacciatora.Of course, as with any real recipe, the cook makes any additions of adjustments according to taste and inclination. So, do what you want with the details of this recipe. But, if you want to retain the complex flavors of the traditional recipe, you do need at least either the anchovies or the olives.And you should start with a pancetta or bacon base.Beyond that, you can also use carrots, or celery or bell peppers.
Serve this dish alone in its own right or for something a bit more substantial, serve this Chicken Cacciatora over rice or over spaghetti.If you have left-over sauce littered with onion, olive and bacon, heat the sauce in the micro-wave and spoon it over good Italian bread for lunch or snack.
What you need
Getting it together: the mise-en-place