Monday, March 8, 2010

Chicken cacciatore: food for when it rains

I live here because it doesn’t snow. I love summer, humid weather, cotton dresses and Pimms cup. And as my city was hit by devastating and spectacular hail storms over the past two days I started to dread the long steep decent into autumn and winter, and the all too short thawing of spring. It may not snow here, but for nine months it is pretty damn cold.

Weather is evocative of food: summer is stone fruit and mangoes and seafood and salad and pineapple sorbet. Autumn is always mushrooms. The last of the tomatoes and the start of slow cooking. Dried beans and chard, potatoes and apples and pears. This is the stuff that keeps me going as the weather turns nasty.

We had invited people around for dinner on Sunday night, but with flooded roads and predictions of more wild storms, we started calling around asking our friends not to travel. Ordinarily this might seem an over-reaction, but I had seen for myself how the storms ripped through from the north into Melbourne on Saturday. My train back from a short visit to the country had been stopped an hour out of town, and the replacement coach took nearly four hours to get back. The bus depot was flooded, ankle deep in water. Roads were closed. Piles of ice lay at the sides of the road. Under the circumstances, not everyone came round. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have been far from home last night.

All I wanted as the rain and wind whipped our windows was old fashioned Italian comfort food, the kind that simmers all day on the stove, making the house smell like onions, then tomatoes, then wine, then herbs, then just warm and savoury as it bubbles away.

In fact between the chilli chocolate soufflé cake* I cooked in the morning (filling the house with the scent of melted chocolate) to the fava bean dip (slowly cooked on the stove in onions and celery and thyme)* and the aroma of chicken cacciatore, I could just about bear the onset of winter.

I realise that cacciatore is a dish that has significantly changed over the centuries, but at its base it is the dish cooked by hunters, out in the forest, bulked out by the ingredients to hand: wild mushrooms, wine, cured meat, rabbit or chicken, wild herbs.

It’s a dish perfect for the start of autumn: rich with pureed fresh tomatoes, just starting to be squishy and overripe (picked up at a country market stall), cultivated mushrooms made more rich with the addition of dried porcini, a generous dash of red wine and smoky rich bacon from the organic pig farm I visited on Saturday morning. Served with slow cooked polenta, rich with sheep’s milk percorino. Cosy, warm and safe.

And plenty of left-overs.

* see for the recipe. I added 1 teaspoon of ground chilli, ½ teaspoon cinnamon and ¼ ground ginger, and left out the vanilla. Tip: make sure you use very finely ground almond meal.

Chicken cacciatore

Generously serves six

12 chicken drumsticks, skin and knuckle removed
¼ cup corn flour
Salt and pepper
2 brown onions, diced
150 gm really good bacon
300 gm carrots, diced
300 celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
200 ml red wine
1 kg fresh tomatoes, peeled and pureed
1 kg mushrooms
5 gms dried porcini, soaked in ¼ cup water for about 20 minutes.

Coat the drumsticks in seasoned cornflour. Heat olive oil in very large saucepan, and cook the drumsticks until browned all over. Remove and set aside.

Add more olive oil to the pan, add the chopped onion and bacon and cook for a couple of minutes, until softening. Add the celery, carrot and garlic and cook until soft and starting to caramelise. Add the red wine and boil off the alcohol (the smell of alcohol will disappear). Add the pureed tomatoes and herbs, heat through. Return the chicken to the sauce, reduce heat to a slow simmer, and cook for an hour or so.

Half an hour before serving, add mushrooms and porcini (discard water).

Serve over slow cooked polenta or pasta or rice.

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