On Sunday, I attended a lecture sponsored by our local Italian cultural organization that was titled “Italy’s Third Golden Age.” After citing the Roman Empire and the Renaissance as the first two of these eras, the speaker turned to the post World-War-Two era as the beginning of the third. In support of her thesis, she cited Italy’s accomplishments in the cinema, automotive engineering, fashion, and food.
Although her talk was entertaining and illustrated with abundant slides of cinematic, fashion, automotive, and culinary icons, it seemed to focus more on the popular theme of la dolce vita than on any serious cultural achievements equal to those of the first two golden ages. I’m sure the Italian Trade Commission would have been quite content both with the turnout and the audience reaction.
I, on the other hand, was disappointed by some of her omissions from the roster of achievers, one of which led me to prepare the subject of today’s post. That oversight occurred in the speaker’s brief tribute to Italy’s culinary accomplishments, which began with Chef Boyardee and concluded with Lidia Bastianich.
If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, I’m sure you know that I’m a fan of Lidia and respect what she, along with the whole Bastianich enterprise, has done to promote Italian food and culinary traditions in the United States. However, I was startled that our lecturer made no mention of the woman who, many say, transformed the image of Italian cooking in the U.S., namely Marcella Hazan. In my opinion, she did for Italian cuisine in America what Julia Child did for French, replacing clichéd imitations with authentic Italian dishes.
So when I came home from the event, as a personal tribute, I decided to cook one of Marcella’s recipes that I’ve wanted to make for some time: “Fricasseed Chicken with Almonds.” It’s from one of her later books, Marcella Says. . .. Like so many of her recipes, it uses a minimum of ingredients, yet delivers an abundance of flavor.
Except for the almonds, I pretty much had everything on hand. And while the recipe called for cutting up a whole chicken, I opted to use four hefty thighs that I had in the freezer. What initially intrigued me about this recipe was its extended cooking time over the lowest heat for the fricassee: an hour and fifteen minutes, or, as she says “for as long as necessary for the meat to come easily off the bone.”
This recipe also illustrates the importance Marcella always places on the quality of ingredients. She warns the cook against using peeled almonds for the dish since, in her opinion, “one never knows how long they’ve been on the shelf and blanched almonds turn rancid more quickly than unpeeled ones.”
My only complaint about this, as well as some other of her recipes, is the lack of seasoning. The next time I prepare this dish, I’ll be sure to season the chicken with both salt and pepper, before browning. Nevertheless, the chicken was delicious with rich earth and savory flavors from the Marsala and buttery notes from the almonds. The fall-off-the-bone texture of the meat and silky sauce reminded me of so many fricassee dishes I’ve enjoyed in Roman trattorie.
Fricasseed Chicken with Almonds (from Marcella Says. . . by Marcella Hazan.)
(Pollo in Fricassea con le Mandorle)
Yields 4-6 servings
3 ½ – to 4-pound chicken, cut up into 8 piece.
2 ounces, about 1/3 cup, whole almonds, shelled but not peeled
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed with the flat part of a heavy knife blade
1 cup flour, spread on a plate
1 cup dry Marsala wine
Fine sea salt
Chopped dried hot red chili pepper, 1 teaspoon or more, adjusting the quantity to taste and to the potency of the chili
A warm serving platter
1. Wash the chicken pieces under cold running water, then set in a footed colander to drain. (Following more contemporary guidelines, I skipped the washing, but dried the chicken thighs well with paper towels.)
2. Drop the almonds into a small saucepan of boiling water. Two minutes after the water returns to a boil, drain through a sieve. Wrap the almonds in a dampened dish towel. Rub the almonds briskly in the towel, unwrap the towel, and remove those almonds with loosened peels. Remove the peels. Wrap up the remaining almonds and repeat the rubbing procedure until all the almonds are peeled. Put the almonds in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and chop until pulverized. (I found that after drying, it was easier to peel the almonds by pressing the thick end between my thumb and index finger.)
3. Put the butter and oil in a 12-inch sauté pan together with the garlic and turn on the heat to high. Stir the garlic from time to time. When the butter melts completely and its foam begins to subside, dredge one chicken piece at a time in the flour and slip it into the pan to brown. When all the chicken pieces have been browned on one side, turn them and brown the other side. When they have all been thoroughly browned, remove the breast pieces, and set them aside in a bowl.
4. Add the chopped almonds to the pan, stirring them with a wooden spoon for about a minute to brown. Add the Marsala, salt, and the chili pepper, turning mixture over with the wooden spoon. When the Marsala has bubbled for about 1 minute, turn the heat down to the lowest setting and cover the pan. Cook for 1 hour, or as long as necessary for the meat to come easily off the bone, then return the breast pieces to the pan. Cook for another 15 minutes. Transfer the fricassee to the warm platter and serve at once. (My total cooking time for just thighs was the full 75 minutes. Also to be safe and avoid a flare up, you may want to remove the pan from the heat when adding the Marsala.)
Ahead-of-time note: If you are serving the chicken for dinner, you can cook it through to the end that morning. Refrigerate and reheat gently in the same pan.
Wine Pairing: Grillo