Pollo alla Contadina

After preparing this dish, from Carol Fields’ In Nonna’s Kitchen, I am forced to question its attribution to a contadina, the Italian word for a farmer’s wife. Indeed, given some of the recipe’s ingredients like nutmeg and lemon zest as well as some of its directions like using a separate skillet to sweat the aromatics and a fine-mesh sieve or a food processor to puree the sauce, the only farmer’s wife I could imagine making the dish is Lisa Douglas, played by Eva Gabor in the ‘60s television show, “Green Acres.”

Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in Green Acres

Yet despite my rant over its attribution, the recipe yields an exceptional dish that exceeded my expectations. Like other recipes in the book, it is sourced from an Italian grandmother whose cooking preserves the traditions of her region. This particular nonna, Emma Grassi Bensi, hails from Tuscany and, as Fields points out, her “addition of nutmeg and grated lemon zest gives the sauce an elegance beyond its rustic beginnings.” In fact, those two ingredients differentiate this dish from so many other Italian chicken stews like cacciatore, where peppers, tomatoes, and spice dominate the flavor profile. The refinement in this dish might also be attributed to the slow cooking of the aromatics and the judicious use of herbs. Likewise, rubbing the chicken with the juice from half a lemon adds a welcomed savory note to the dish and seems to extract more flavor from the poultry.

My only real complaint about the recipe is its failure to introduce any salt and pepper until just before serving. In my adaptation I seasoned the chicken before sautéing and also sprinkled the aromatics with salt when I started cooking them. I also thought that rubbing the chicken with the lemon juice might interfere with the browning of it, and so I chose to rub only the underside of the thighs, leaving the skin side dry. My only other departure from the recipe was substituting chicken thighs for a cut-up whole chicken.

Pollo alla Contadina, Chicken Country Style (adapted from In Nonna’s Kitchen by Carol Field)
Serves 4 to 6



1 chicken, about 3 to 3 ½ pounds, cut into 8 pieces (I substituted 4 large thighs.)
½ lemon
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
Finely grated zest of 1 ½ lemons
½ cup red wine, preferably from Chianti
3 small ripe tomatoes, peeled seeded, chopped (I substituted canned San Marzano tomatoes.)
¼ cup boiling chicken broth or 1 chicken bouillon cube dissolved in ¼ cup of boiling water
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
About ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Prepped Ingredients


1. Rub the pieces of chicken with the juice of ½ lemon. (I rubbed the meat side to leave the skin side dry and let the pieces sit for 15 minutes.) Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

Rubbing with lemon

2. Warm 4 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch heavy skillet or sauté pan and sauté the onion, carrot, celery, parsley, rosemary, and one third of the lemon zest over low-medium heat for 15 minutes, until the onions are soft but not yet golden. (Season the aromatics with salt when you start to sauté.)

Heating the oil
Adding the aromatics and herbs
Softened aromatics

3. Use a second heavy sauté pan to warm the remaining tablespoons of olive oil, add the chicken pieces and sauté over medium high heat until they are golden brown, about 15 minutes, turning frequently to brown them evenly.

Sautéing the chicken
Browned chicken

4. At the end, turn the heat to high, pour in the red wine, and let it boil briskly until it evaporates.

Adding the wine
Boiling off the wine

5. Transfer the onion mixture to the pan with the chicken pieces, stir in the tomatoes and broth, turn the heat to low, cover, and cook slowly for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is tender when pierces with the tip of the knife.

Transferring onion mixture
Adding tomatoes
Adding broth

6. Once the meat is tender, uncover and cook for another 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Taste for salt and pepper.

Chicken is done

7. Transfer the chicken pieces to a warmed serving platter.

8. Puree the sauce in a food processor or blender, adding the gratings of nutmeg and the remaining grated zest of lemon. If the sauce is too dense, add a little more broth. You will have 1 ½ cups of sauce. Pour the sauce over and around the chicken and serve immediately.

The sauce ready to puree
Pureeing the sauce
Adding lemon zest
Adding nutmeg

Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino

8 thoughts on “Pollo alla Contadina

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