By Douglas Elder, Executive Chef
Chicken cacciatore is just one of those dishes that everyone seems to have cooked at one time in their life. However, what goes in a cacciatore is a source of debate amongst many, with every recipe seeming to differ, if only in small ways. “Cacciatore” of course translates as “hunter” in Italian, so it is quite literally “chicken in the style of the hunter”.
With that name, I can imagine partridge or pheasant, or any other sorts of game going in the pot, meats that require a long and slow cooking process and, of course, need to be hunted. In Southern Italy, you are just as likely to see rabbit cooked this way, but chicken now seems to be the meat of choice around the world.
There are many theories out there on what constitutes a “real” cacciatore sauce, and like a lot of food history, there is probably a little touch of truth in all of them. Most recipes you read tend to agree on the use of onions, tomatoes, herbs, mushrooms and wine as the base. Yet, there are some that argue there should be no tomato … who knows? A lot of conjecture also centres around why it is called “hunters” style. The romantic in me hopes that it is the theory of a hunter nabbing himself a tasty game bird, sitting down by the camp fire at night with a glass or two of vino (not forgetting one for the pot of course!), slowly stewing it with whatever he had … that wine of course, some dried herbs, and some mushrooms from the field.
Whilst it sounds good, one thing I know for sure is that the recipe I’m going to give you makes one fine Chicken Cacciatore, even though it may not be completely traditional!! Whether it is true to the history of cacciatore won’t matter too much when it tastes this good, and, of course, after you have had a couple of glasses of vino yourself.
I love cooking this style of food during winter. Slow cooked, just one pot, hearty fare – cook it, serve it with some wet polenta and you are in heaven on a cold night. I made this recipe last year for a work function and one of my chefs was very quick to eat much of the leftovers. He loved it! He must have been thinking about it for a while, as earlier this year he came back to me with a dish that he had created for our Patricia’s Table menu, using cacciatore as the heart of the meal.
Small Milawa free-range spring chickens are boned out, the legs making the tasty cacciatore sauce, the breasts brined and then roasted to order. Spiced cauliflower cous cous makes the base, and it is finished with an agrodolce sauce made from green olives, pinenuts and parsley. A great dish, and even though I didn’t create it myself, at least I can take heart that I was the inspiration. We match this with our 2013 Heathcote 1889 Shiraz. There is something with the ripe, spicy and juicy nature of this wine that is just bang on with it. Who would have thought, chicken and shiraz!
So here is the link to my Chicken Cacciatore recipe, and here are a few tips when making it. Firstly, all slow cooking works best with whole joints of meat, as it always cooks and tastes better on the bone. You can also use chicken drumsticks, or whole chicken marylands if you prefer.
If you don’t have chicken stock, just use some water, for as the chicken cooks it will release its juices naturally. I like adding anchovies to nearly all of my slow cooking as they are a great natural source of salt and flavour that’s slowly released as they break down, but you can leave it out. I cook my version at home in a cast iron pot, lid on, in a slow oven for about 1 ½ hours. That way, it really develops some great flavours. However if you want to cook it faster, just leave it on the stove top and simmer away. It should be done in 40 minutes or so.
The rest is up to you. No chilli, extra chilli, red wine or white wine, garnish it with toasted almonds and black olives? Add some thyme or rosemary or bay leaves as it cooks. Make it your own. If you have any leftover sauce, it is great as a quick pasta dish, just re-heat any leftover sauce, toss with some pasta and add some grated parmesan. Perfect.
Good luck with the recipe, and don’t forget this is only a guideline, create your own version.