Chicken Cacciatore

Genealogically speaking, I don’t believe I have a single Italian bone in my body. Nope—my people came from other parts of Europe and beyond. But I am so in love with Italian food, especially the southern regional dishes, such as layered baked pasta dishes and big red sauces (or “Sunday gravy,” as it would be called). My grandmother taught me some authentic Scandinavian dishes, but I had to do my own research to learn the real deal on Italian flavors, so I could ditch the bland and overly sweet jarred sauces. I’ve learned how to make my own pasta (that’ll be another post), and hopefully I’ll prove today that I can rock a red sauce that is molto buono!

Chicken cacciatore is my “comfort du jour,” moist and oh-so-tender chicken, stewed slowly and thoughtfully with tomatoes and Italian herbs and spices. This is some serious, old-school Italian comfort food right here! I can’t say that I’ve added a twist to this recipe (maybe the bomba?), but if you’ve never made cacciatore before, I hope you’ll find my recipe approachable. You’ve got this—and here’s a quick rundown of what I learned before I made my own.

What’s the big deal about San Marzano tomatoes?

For Italian sauce recipes, there is really no substitute for San Marzano tomatoes. They are super meaty with a perfect acidic-to-sweet balance, and exceptional for the richest Italian sauces. In appearance, they are essentially plum tomatoes and they are the genetic ancestors of the common supermarket Roma, but to be legally called San Marzano, they must be cultivated in the southern region of Italy of the same name, where the climate and rich, volcanic soil work their magic. Are real San Marzano tomatoes worth the extra buck per can? You bet!

What is bomba sauce?

This bomba is the bomba!

Delicious, that’s what! Bomba sauce is typically a paste-like seasoning, centered around dried chile peppers from the southern regions of Italy, mixed with olive oil, spices and vinegar. It’s a pungent condiment that is meant to be used sparingly. Trader Joe’s has its version of the sauce that I absolutely love—it’s unique because the Calabrian chiles are fermented, which lends extraordinary depth and flavor. I’ve added a very small amount to my cacciatore, but it wouldn’t be the same without the bomba.

Can I substitute skinless chicken breast for the chicken thighs in this recipe?

Of course, you can always substitute white meat, skinless or boneless, but the dish will not have as much depth and richness, and you’d need to use extra oil to prevent the meat from sticking in the pan. I choose large, bone-in chicken thighs for this recipe because they’re a perfect portion size and the dark meat is so flavorful. Keeping the skin on allows you to draw every bit of chicken-y goodness into the meal. Also, I only select organic, free-range chicken because birds that have freedom to roam in the fresh air and sunshine are healthier, and you know what they say—we are what we eat.

What flavors are in Italian seasoning?

Italian cooks have always relied on the abundant flavors of fresh herbs. If you pick up any bottle of “Italian seasoning” at the supermarket, you can predictably find it contains the big three—oregano, basil and thyme, but there are many other flavors that play well with Italy’s flavorful sauces and roasted meats. In the north, you’d expect to see rosemary and sage. In the south, spicier flavors like red pepper are prominent. Two of my favorites are marjoram (cousin of mint and very similar to oregano) and fennel seed, which has a floral, slightly licorice flavor. It’s what makes Italian sausage taste special. I make my own “Mama Mia” seasoning blend without salt, and I use the big three, plus garlic, fennel seed and crushed red pepper. It’s good for a little punch of flavor in any Italian red sauce, sprinkled on pizza or mixed with olive oil as a bread dipping condiment. If you want to make mine, the recipe is at the end. Otherwise, substitute as noted in the ingredients.


Serves 4 – Prep in 20 minutes, cook for 90 minutes

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

4 large chicken thighs (bone-in, skin on)

2 large bell peppers, seeded and sliced lengthwise, about 1/4” thin

1 medium-size sweet onion, sliced lengthwise 1/4” thin

4 or 5 cloves fresh garlic, rough chopped or sliced

2 tsp. Mama Mia Italian seasoning blend—or
1/4 tsp. each:  oregano, basil, ground fennel seed, thyme leaves, garlic powder, onion powder, crushed red pepper flakes (this is not exactly the same as my Mama Mia blend, but close)

1 or 2 tsp. Trader Joe’s Italian Bomba hot pepper sauce

Handful Kalamata olives (pitted), rough-chopped into pieces

1/4 cup dry red wine (It doesn’t have to be Italian; I used a CA red blend that was already open)

1 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes in puree (San Marzano, if possible)

1/2 package linguine (preferably “bronze-cut” for best texture)

Freshly grated parmesan or parm-romano blend, for serving

Small handful Italian flat leaf parsley, cleaned and chopped

A loaf of fresh Italian bread for sopping up every single drop of the sauce


Instructions

  1. Pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and season both sides generously with kosher salt and black pepper.
  2. Heat a large (12”) cast-iron skillet (or electric skillet) to medium-hot, and swirl in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When oil is just shimmering, place chicken thighs in pan, skin side down, leaving plenty of room between them. Cover the pan (I use a spatter screen) and leave them undisturbed about 7 minutes to allow a deep golden crust to form on the skin. Loosen and turn the thighs and cook until just lightly browned on the other side, about 2 minutes. The chicken will finish cooking later in the sauce. Remove the pieces to a plate and keep warm while you prep the sauce.
  3. If the remaining oil is sputtering or popping in the pan, allow a few seconds for the moisture droplets to cook off. Reduce heat to medium. All at once, add your onions and bell peppers to the pan, and stir them around until they begin to soften. Add the Mama Mia seasoning, plus salt and pepper, over the entire mixture. Add the garlic and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onions are slightly translucent. Stir in the Kalamata olives, the Bomba sauce and the red wine.
  4. Add the peeled tomatoes, using your hand to squeeze each one into the pan. This releases more of the juices quickly and gives the tomatoes a head start on breaking up. Pour all remaining juice from the tomatoes into the pan, but discard any large basil leaves that may have been included in the can (they’ve already done their job). Add a splash of water (or wine!) to the tomato can to swish out every last bit of flavor in there. Scrape up any browned bits that may be stuck to the pan and stir the mixture until it has a uniform appearance. Cover and allow the mixture to come up to a slight boil.
  5. Add the chicken thighs back to the pan, skin side up, and spoon the tomato mixture lightly over the tops. They don’t need to be buried in it, but you want to moisten them with the flavorful sauce. Cover the pan and reduce heat to medium-low, turning the chicken only twice over the next 90 minutes.
  6. When the sauce is a deep red color and the chicken shreds with a light twist of your fork, reduce heat to warm and prepare your pasta water. Remember to use plenty of water and plenty of salt.
  7. When the salted water reaches a steady boil, add your pasta and stir at once to prevent sticking. Cook to just barely al dente, or a couple of minutes under what seems perfect. You’re going to finish it in the sauce. Before draining the pasta, ladle out 2 to 3 tablespoons of the water into the sauce. This adds the pasta starch to the sauce, which helps “marry” them to coat the pasta better.
  8. Move the chicken pieces to the outer edges of the pan (or remove to a plate if the pan is crowded), making a well of sauce in the center. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the center of the pot, stirring quickly to evenly coat it in the sauce. I use silicone tongs to do this because I can grab hold of the pasta while moving it. Cover the pan and turn off the heat while you pour another glass of wine and call everyone to the table.
Mangia!

Portion the pasta onto the serving plates, top with a spoonful of sauce, then a chicken thigh, and divvy out the rest of the flavorful sauce. Sprinkle some grated cheese and a bit of fresh chopped parsley on top and enjoy!


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Mama Mia seasoning
(makes about 1/3 cup seasoning blend)

I created my own blend of Italian spices, to customize the flavors we like best at our house. Most of my blends do not contain salt, and this allows more flexibility with different application and better control of the sodium in my dishes. Most of the time, I double the recipe so I always have a jar of the blend at the ready. The beauty of a blend like this one is that you can increase or decrease or even eliminate ingredients based on your taste preference. And every time, it’ll be perfect!

This blend is great for your own Italian red sauce, or add a teaspoon to a puddle of extra virgin olive oil and top with freshly grated parmesan for a flavorful bread dipping oil.

1 Tbsp. whole fennel seed
1 Tbsp. dried minced garlic
1 Tbsp. granulated garlic
1 Tbsp. dried basil leaves
2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano
1 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1 1/2 tsp. onion powder

To make it:

Heat a dry skillet (no oil!) over medium high heat and add fennel seeds, swirling the pan constantly for about one minute, until the seeds become fragrant. Remove immediately to a bowl to cool completely, then crush seeds with a mortar and pestle or pulse a few quick times in a spice grinder.

Add all other seasoning to the bowl and stir to combine. Transfer to a jar or empty spice bottle.

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Shakshuka (shiksa style)

We are inching toward a special day—and time of year—in Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah, in the simplest of terms, is the onset of the “High Holidays,” a 10-day celebration that concludes with Yom Kippur. The whole event is a spiritual reset button of sorts, a time for personal introspection leading to atonement. When I became engaged to my husband, Les, in 2016, I joined him for High Holidays services, and though I likely will not ever convert to Judaism, I love learning about this sacred part of my husband’s heritage. Going through the Hebrew readings and stages of reflection is something Jesus would have done as a regular practice (he was Jewish, remember?), and I have found that it gives me richer insight into my own Christian faith.

The fact that I am not Jewish, regardless of my stance on Jesus, earns me the unenviable title of “shiksa,” a Yiddish word politely translated as “a non-Jewish woman.” Some other definitions are less diplomatic and even derogatory, meaning something along the line of “sketchy non-Jewish woman who has taken romantic interest in a good, upstanding Jewish guy.” Yep, I’m guilty of all that! I take no offense, and our religious differences have never presented a conflict for Les and me. On the contrary, we find that it makes our relationship more interesting.

During our preparation for marriage, Les and I met a few times with Rabbi Mark, whom we had asked to officiate our small and informal ceremony. Over lunch, I mentioned how much I was enjoying exploration of the traditions, especially the foods. I had already learned to make latkes, one of the most recognizable Jewish foods (which I’ll share more about when we get closer to Hanukkah). Rabbi Mark made a recommendation for a next recipe to try—shakshuka. It’s fun to say (shock-SHOO-ka), and not the same as shiksa. 😀

I’d never heard of this, and neither had Les, so it was immediately placed at the top of the bucket list. Our first shakshuka turned out terrific, and when Les posted this picture of it to his Facebook page, he got an immediate thumbs-up from Cousin Caryn in Israel—“that is SO Jewish!”

Not a bad first effort in 2017!

Shakshuka is typically served at breakfast, so I’m counting it as part of my “better breakfast month” series, and it’s remarkably simple to make and flexible to accommodate a variety of ingredients. It usually begins with a thick tomato sauce base, though I’ve seen some interesting “green” shakshuka recipes on Pinterest. Any other favorite vegetables or ingredients can be incorporated, including cauliflower, eggplant, spinach, kale, peppers, onions, squash, chickpeas, or nearly anything else you have on hand. You stew it all together with Mediterranean spices in a cast-iron skillet, then you crack raw eggs directly into the sauce and simmer until they’re cooked to your liking, or (as I often do) slide it into the oven to finish.

It’s great for breakfast, or breakfast for dinner!

The result is a savory blend of nutrition and flavor, hearty enough to satisfy your morning hunger, or for “breaking the fast,” because after the 24 hours of fasting and prayer at Yom Kippur, you’re gonna get pretty hungry!

The cool thing about shakshuka (as if the flavor and flexibility aren’t cool enough) is that you do not have to be Jewish to enjoy it! You may have seen a similar dish from Italy called “eggs in purgatory,” featuring the same stewed tomato foundation. Both dishes are likely drawn from nearby North Africa during the Ottoman Empire, and during that time, meat (not tomatoes) was the original main ingredient.

My produce and pantry inventory included everything I needed for a hearty shakshuka, and it landed on our table last night as breakfast for dinner on Meatless Monday. I couldn’t resist serving this with the soft pita breads that have become such a staple in our home.

The soft pita is perfect for sopping up this rich tomato stew.

Basic Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil (how much depends on what you’re adding)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in puree*

4 eggs

Optional Ingredients

Depending on your taste, and your inventory, consider adding any of these ingredients. It’s your kitchen, and you can make your shakshuka as chunky or saucy as you’d like. For the most authentic experience of this dish, I’d recommend keeping with ingredients that are common to the Middle East, where shakshuka was born.

Up to 1 cup other vegetables, such as fresh cauliflower, fresh cubed eggplant, fresh chopped bell peppers

Up to 1 cup canned chickpeas or cooked lentils, or 1/2 cup in combination with your favorite vegetables (above)

Up to 2 cups fresh greens, chopped (they will cook down to small amount, so be generous)

Other flavor enhancers, such as olives, capers, spices, tomato paste, chile peppers

There’s so much tangy, rich sauce in this dish, you’ll want to have some kind of bread nearby for sopping. Pita is a great option, or any other kind of soft bread is just right.

*Notes

I’ve never made the same shakshuka combination twice, but I tend to steer toward more body and texture when we are having it for dinner. And it always depends on what I find in the fridge. For this post, I used the basic ingredients, then reached into the fridge for some add-ins. Les made his fabulous pimiento cheese last weekend, and a half can of spicy Rotel tomatoes and a half jar of pimientos were still in the fridge. In they went, along with about a cup of chopped fresh cauliflower, 1/2 can garbanzo beans, a fat handful of chopped kale leaves, some briny olives and capers, tomato paste to thicken and harissa to add flavor and heat.

Harissa is a spicy paste-like seasoning that has origin in Northern Africa. It has hot chiles and garlic, plus what I call the three “C spices”—cumin, coriander and caraway. Harissa is common to Moroccan cuisine, and lends wonderful depth of flavor to stewed dishes like shakshuka.

Instructions

  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil and sauté onions, cauliflower and any other firm vegetables until lightly caramelized.
  2. Add garlic, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and any other add-ins that strike your fancy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. For my recipe, I also added a little smoked paprika and ground cumin. Stir to combine ingredients evenly and cook over medium low heat for about 20 minutes so that the tomatoes lose the “canned” flavor and mixture begins to thicken like a stew.
  3. Use the back of a large spoon to create slight depressions to hold the eggs. Crack eggs, one at a time, into a custard cup and transfer them into the dents you’ve made, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, cover the skillet and simmer until eggs are set to your liking. Alternatively, you can slide the skillet into a 350° F oven and bake about 15 minutes, or until eggs reach your desired doneness.
  4. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley or oregano and serve with soft pita breads or other bread for sopping all the shakshuka sauce.
Oh, yes, some crumbled feta on top!

So easy, even a shiksa can make it! Shakshuka is delicious, easy and economical. Serve it family style, and let everyone scoop out their own portion into a bowl.

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Heirloom Tomato and Grilled Watermelon Gazpacho

A few hours before my 50th birthday, I had dinner by myself at a local restaurant where a friend of mine was a server. This was a very intentional decision I made because, as strange as it may sound, all I wanted for my birthday was to hear Guido describe the specials. The “u” in his name is silent, so it’s pronounced “GHEE-doe.” He is of Argentinian descent and a beautiful person (inside and out), but please don’t misunderstand—this was not any kind of romantic inclination. Guido knew that I was a full-fledged foodie, and he had a remarkable gift in his ability to describe food with exactly the right words to make me want that dish.

How often have I rolled my eyes in a restaurant when a perky server bounces up to the table with the trite declaration, “Hi, I’m Ashley (Bridget, Connor, Danielle, whatever) and I’ll be taking care of you.” Sweetie, please, you have no idea what it will mean to take care of me. I’m a high-maintenance guest, so brace yourself. And while you’re at it, please stop with this cliché.

But not Guido, an old soul who has always seemed to know instinctively what I’m craving, from wine to appetizers to dessert. He never promised to take care of me, he just did so. And he never asked whether I wished for freshly cracked pepper from his giant pepper mill—he knew me, like a culinary soulmate, and I followed him when he moved to work in a different restaurant. He used words like “exquisite” and “succulent,” and he looked me in the eye as he described the dishes from memory rather than reading off his order pad. Of course, I realize the possibility that he was merely very persuasive in his approach, and that he may not have known what I wanted as much as he made me want the dishes he was selling. And I’m OK with that.

Either way, on my birthday that year, he positively nailed it when he “suggested” that I should begin my birthday meal experience with one of the chef’s special starters—a refreshing bowl of the house-made grilled watermelon gazpacho.

OK, what?

I have no idea what else I ate and drank that evening, but I never forgot about that gazpacho. It was everything I imagined and expected—fresh, chilled, flavorful—but unlike any I had ever had before, courtesy of the summer-sweet watermelon. And grilled, at that. The level of cool, clean refreshment was off the charts, and I’m very excited to finally make my own version of it, so I can share it with you. I’ve followed the lead of Guido’s chef by grilling wedges of fresh watermelon. I’ll mix it up with additional fresh watermelon, ripe heirloom tomatoes, red onions, cucumber and jalapeno. Doesn’t it sound like summer?

Though gazpacho is most often served as a starter, I’ve turned mine into a cool summer meal, with addition of paprika-dusted grilled sweet shrimp and creamy cubes of avocado. When you’re ready to make this, use the ripest, freshest farmer’s market tomatoes you can get your hands on. Grocery store tomatoes will not cut it for this one. And it’ll be best to use watermelon at its peak sweetness as well.

In a blender or processor, the whole thing comes together quickly, then just chill it down in the fridge overnight so these flavors have plenty of time to mingle.

From start to finish, this dish reminds me of Guido, whom I have stayed in touch with, but have not seen since that night at dinner. I should call him up and invite him to taste this gazpacho. It also reminds me of turning 50, and for some, that might not be a positive. But, without question, it turned out to be the best year of my life. Can a soup change one’s life? Probably not, but like any other food, sometimes it can hold a special place in your story.


Ingredients

3 cups chopped heirloom tomatoes* (see slideshow for peeling tips)

2 cups chopped grilled watermelon*

1 cup fresh watermelon

1/2 large red onion, rough chopped

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and rough chopped

1 good sized jalapeno, seeded and rough chopped

1 tsp. coarse sea salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp. seasoned salt

1 tsp. sweet smoked paprika

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 lb. fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 tsp. sweet smoked paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 scallions, washed and trimmed

Extra virgin olive oil

1 avocado, peeled and cubed

Juice of 1 lime

1/2 jalapeno, diced (optional to taste)

*Notes

I love heirloom tomatoes because they taste the way I remember tomatoes, rather than mealy and bland from the supermarket. If you can pick them from the vine yourself, even better! But if you don’t have a garden, no problem (after all, mine belongs to the deer). Head to the farmer’s market and don’t be shy about trying different varieties. It’s often the funky-looking tomatoes that have the very best flavor!

Grill the watermelon in large thick slices, as chunks are more likely to fall apart. We did them outside on the gas grill, but if you have an indoor grilll, that will work as well. The goal is to concentrate the flavors of the watermelon.

Here’s a quick visual tip for peeling tomatoes without boiling water and handling them when they’re all hot and slippery. My grandmother taught me this easy trick that works every time.


Instructions for the gazpacho

  1. Begin by grilling up several wedges of fresh, ripe watermelon. Cool them, and refrigerate until ready to proceed with the pureed soup.
  2. Peel your heirloom tomatoes, and remove seeds if desired. Pluck out any obvious watermelon seeds.
  3. Load up the bowl of your food processor or blender with the watermelon, grilled watermelon and peeled tomatoes. Work in batches if necessary. Pulse several times until mixture is evenly combined and “soupy.”
  4. Remove half of the pureed mixture to a separate bowl, then add the onions, jalapeno and cucumber to the processor and pulse until smooth. Add salt and pepper, seasoned salt and vinegar and pulse again to combine.

Transfer the processor mixture to the bowl with the rest of the puree and adjust seasoning to taste. Refrigerate puree at least overnight to really blend the flavors.


Instructions for shrimp and serving

Shrimp cook quickly, so I grilled them indoors rather than waiting for the outdoor grill to heat up. Grilling scallions mellows out their flavor, which is exactly what I wanted for topping the gazpacho.
  1. Toss the shrimp with just enough olive oil to coat it, then season with paprika, salt and pepper and toss so that the spices are evenly coating the shrimp. Spray or drizzle the scallions with olive oil.
  2. Grill the scallions and shrimp (I used the integrated grill on our gas range) until they are desired doneness and scallions have sweet little grill marks. Allow both to cool slightly.
  3. Peel and cube the avocado and squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice over them to prevent browning. Chop the scallions. Dice the jalapeno.
  4. Ladle the gazpacho into serving bowls and top with the shrimp, avocado, jalapeno and scallions. Finally, a quick twist of freshly ground black pepper (did you know that black pepper has amazing health benefits?—Guido always said that when he brought the pepper mill to my table).

Light, fresh and delicious!

Here’s what I love about this soup—

  • It’s cool, and in the midst of intense heat of a Southern summer, a welcome relief.
  • It’s delicious, fresh and healthful. Just savoring these marvelous flavors in their natural state makes me want to take up yoga and change my name to “Sunshine.”
  • It’s very low in fat. I don’t know the specific count, but there’s none in the soup, a nominal amount in the shrimp, and only the good-for-you kind in the extra virgin olive oil and avocado.
  • A single serving satisfies a full daily requirement of nutrients, vitamins, fiber and antioxidants.

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