Legend has it that ‘chicken Cacciatore’ [catch-ah-toh-ree], or chicken in the style of the hunter, originated somewhere in Central Italy in the Renaissance period (ca. 1450-1600). You know, that part of history of awful torture, the black plague, magnificent art and ornately corseted powdered women practicing the harpsichord. Maybe Lady Gaga is on to something?
But we digress… In those times, the only people who could afford to enjoy a delicacy such as poultry, were the well-to-do Italian noblemen who indulged in hunting as a form of entertainment. Wait. Hunting chickens?! What? This almost resembles drunken history. I’m pretty sure that medieval Italy did not harbor flocks of ferocious free-roaming wild chickens in its woods, so let me go out on a historical limb and state that the Italian aristocracy probably hunted for pheasant. Possibly even quail.
Upon return to the homestead, the hunting party would stop on the trail and his lordship would turn to his page boy and say: “Luigi, picketh these shrooms & herbs for they shalt tasteth awesome in the chicken pheasant soup”. Well, maybe not entirely like that, but the dish received its name because reportedly the hunters would return from the woods with wild mushrooms and fragrant plants, all of which would be handed off to the house cook, who was then responsible for turning this into a meal (hm? Deja-vu much?). Rumor has it that tomatoes were added because their acidity tenderized the meat in question, and olives & onions were often added for flavor. I don’t know the history behind the aspect of wine being added, but I suspect a busty jezebel is part of the equation. The dish was served in tin bowls with big honks of crusty bread, since silverware didn’t make its debut until the 1700’s.
‘Hunters’ Chicken’ has many varieties but it’s always a tasty stew of poultry, slowly braised in a tomato sauce with mushrooms, onions, garlic and wine. The selection of herbs depends entirely on the region you are in, and olives don’t always make an appearance either. In short, there is no right or wrong way to prepare chicken cacciatore, there is only the tasty way. Below is my version and I opted for tarragon and parsley. I love the flavor or tarragon and it goes well with the olives and wine that are in this dish as well. Enjoy!
(Adapted from a traditional Italian Chicken Cacciatore)
– 8-10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
– 1 28oz can of peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand (or a large can of crushed tomatoes)
– approx. 24 oz of mushrooms, sliced (*)
– 1.5 cups of dry cured black olives, pitted (or a 12-14 oz can, drained)
– 1 large onion, diced
– 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced or grated
– 1/4 cup of finely chopped fresh tarragon
– a good handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
– 1.5 cups of dry white wine
– 4 Tbsp of flour
– salt & pepper to taste
– butter and/or olive oil to brown the chicken
(*) this may look & sound like a lot of mushrooms, but mushrooms shrink down to nothing when cooked and you want these mushrooms to be a key ingredient in your dish. I used a combination of baby bella mushrooms and regular white button mushrooms, but you can use a variety of wild mushrooms too. Just make sure they do not vary too much in cooking time.
Rinse the chicken thighs and pat dry. Season with salt & pepper set aside. Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp cloth, and slice into thick slices if large. DO NOT rinse your mushrooms in water, as they will absorb a lot of water and become less flavorful. If you dread this whole process, just buy a few bags of pre-sliced shrooms, and you’ll be fine as well.
Over medium-high heat, heat a bit of olive oil & 1 tbsp of butter (for flavor) in a large heavy pan. I used a 15-inch cast iron skillet for this dish, but you can use any large heavy pan. Brown the chicken on all sides for a few minutes and set aside. They will not be fully cooked, but that’s OK.
Add 1/4 of the wine and another tablespoon of butter and deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned chicken bits. Then add the onions and saute them until translucent and soft.
Dump all of your mushrooms in the pan. Don’t be alarmed. I know that ‘crowded’ mushrooms do not brown, but we’re not looking for beautifully browned mushrooms here, we just want to ‘sweat’ them out so they give off most of their juices. Continue to saute the mushrooms & onions, until the pans becomes mostly dry and the mushrooms appear slightly browned and soft.
Sprinkle the onions and mushrooms with the flour, and cook through for a minute more.
Add crushed tomatoes and their juices, the rest of the wine, garlic and 3/4 of the fresh herbs, and bring to a simmer. When simmering, nestle browned chicken thighs in the sauce and let simmer to cook through. Depending on the size of the thighs (doesn’t that sound kinky?), this will take another 30-45 minutes. Add the (drained) black olives during the last 15-20 minutes, simply to heat them through.
Finish the dish with a sprinkling of the remaining fresh herbs on top, and serve with crusty bread or over your favorite starch side.