Watching the latest episode in Stanley Tucci’s CNN series, Searching for Italy, which focused on Roman cuisine, led me to a more serious and scholarly treatment of the subject, Oretta Zanini de Vita’s Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds.
The book is a compendium of food lore and recipes from Rome and its surrounding region, Lazio. For anyone seriously interested in this area’s culinary history, it’s a must read. As a home cook, however, my concentration has been on the book’s recipes. In my opinion, they are some of the most authentic examples of traditional Italian cuisine. Indeed, as the manuscript’s English translator notes: “This is not a modern cookbook, . . .The recipes in this book represent the home cooking of a particular area over generations. If you are unable to find ingredients that are a close approximation of those called for, then you have two choices: make something else or do the best with what you have and understand that you are not making the traditional recipe.”
Two of the author’s idiosyncrasies are refusing to specify salt measurements and placing most ingredient preparation in the body of the recipe as opposed to the ingredients list. In addition, her timing directions can at times be vague: for example, “When the odor of the alcohol has disappeared, add. . .” or “continue cooking until the chicken is tender. . .” Nevertheless, despite some of the recipes’ challenges, I have found that if you take your time reading them and rely on your past cooking experience for timing or seasoning, they can yield some pretty wonderful examples of Roman cooking.
For today’s post I chose the book’s first chicken recipe: Pollo al rosmarino, or Pan-roasted chicken with tomatoes, rosemary, and garlic. I pretty much followed the recipe as written, except for substituting six chicken thighs for its medium-size whole chicken cut into large pieces, using 2 tiny Calabrian peperoncini for the small piece of dried chile, as well as an extra ounce of tomatoes and some freshly ground black pepper. I also substituted, owing to availability, a teaspoon of concentrated chicken-bouillon paste for the recipe’s bouillon cube.
Although, the author doesn’t call for seasoning the chicken before cooking, I took the liberty of doing so. In addition, based on my experience with similar dishes, I occasionally turned the chicken thighs in sauce as they cooked. Finally, I also dried the chicken with paper towels before cooking them to ensure browning and crisping the skin.
Despite my deviations from the original recipe, I believe I came pretty close to recreating the traditional dish. It resembled so many dishes we’ve enjoyed at our favorite Roman trattoria. There was just the right amount of sauce. The chicken was moist and tender, with relatively crispy skin and rich tomato flavor. As with many Roman dishes, the garlic, herbs, and chile harmoniously enhanced the flavors as none dominated. The heat from the peperoncini was typically subtle, like a coda to each delicious bite. My better half proclaimed the dish “phenomenal.”
In my adaptation of the recipe, the suggested cooking times, temperatures, and turnings of the chicken are my own. I served the dish accompanied by a simple polenta.
Pollo al Rosmarino
Pan-Roasted Chicken with Tomatoes, Rosemary, and Garlic (adapted from Popes, Peasants and Shepherd by Oretta Zanini de Vita)
6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs, trimmed of excess skin and fat
Freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, 1 crushed; 1 finely chopped
1 teaspoon concentrated chicken-bouillon paste or 1 bouillon cube
8 ounces imported San Marzano tomatoes, diced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, 1 leaves removed; 1 leaves finely chopped
2 small dried Calabrian peperoncini, or 1 small piece dried chile
scant 1 cup (7 ounces) dry white wine
1. Dry the chicken thighs well with paper towels and season to taste with salt and pepper. You may opt to season the under sides later, as the skin sides brown.
2. Over medium high, heat the oil and crushed garlic in a skillet large enough to hold the chicken in a single layer. If necessary, work in batches.
3. When the oil is hot, brown the chicken on the skin side first, then the underside. Do not crowd the pan. About 9 minutes for the skin side; 4 to 5 minutes for the underside.
3. Discard the garlic before it burns and add the bouillon concentrate or cube, the rosemary leaves from 1 sprig, and the peperoncini. Mix well, add the wine, and let it evaporate over medium heat. About 3 to 4 minutes.
4. When the odor of alcohol has disappeared, add the tomatoes, taste for salt, turn the chicken in the sauce.
5. Reduce the heat to medium low and continue cooking at a gentle simmer, occasionally turning the chicken in the sauce, until the chicken is tender and the sauce is well reduced. About 30 to 35 minutes.
6. Add the chopped garlic and chopped rosemary to the chicken, turning the chicken in the sauce, and cook over low heat for a 3 to 4 minutes to blend the flavors. Remove the peperoncini.
7. Serve immediately on heated plates, pouring sauce over and around the chicken.
Wine Pairing: Frascati, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo