An insightful essay by food-and-wine mavens Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca on the evolution of Italian-American cuisine brought me back to growing up in Brooklyn with a family that had survived the Great Depression. Although my parents and aunt were better off than most, having been gainfully employed and comfortably housed, during that dismal era, they nonetheless were deeply affected by it. My mother especially, who frequently recounted woeful stories of having witnessed people on breadlines in her youth, was extremely frugal, despite being the wife of a successful attorney. Moreover, as a family, our weekly dinner menus closely reflected the Depression-Era pattern described in Darrow and Maresca’s essay:
“Pasta three days a week was common; soups and frittate (Italian-style omelets, usually with vegetables or cheese sufficed for two or three other days. Monday, in almost every household, was soup night. Sunday was sacred to un buon’ pranzo. . . antipasto or soup, or at least a broth, followed first by a pasta course, then by a roast meat, most often a chicken. Dessert in the time-honored form of fresh fruit usually concluded the meal.”
A request from my better half for chicken scarpariello, which by the way I had never had, led me to search my cookbooks for a recipe. None of them, however, contained one that met his expectations. Consequently, I expanded my (now our) search to the Internet, where we finally found a recipe by Anne Burrell on the Food Network website that came close to meeting all the requirements.
This Italian-American dish appears to have originated in New York City. Its name, scarpariello, or shoemaker style, has been attributed to its being “cobbled” together from several ingredients that play a key role in it: chicken, sausage, and cherry peppers.
Although a good number of versions call for cutting up the chicken into small pieces to better absorb the sauce, I chose to use whole thighs, which allow for a slightly longer cooking time to reduce the sauce without drying out the chicken. For the same reason, I also cut my sausages and peppers slightly larger than called for by the original recipe. Finally, rather than using hot cherry peppers, I opted for peppers that were labeled “hot & sweet” in order to reduce the heat and keep older digestive systems happy.
Chicken Scarpariello (Adapted from Anne Burrell on the Food Network Website)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound fennel sausage, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
3-pounds skin-on bone-in chicken thighs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large Spanish onion, cut into 1/4-inch slices
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3/4 cup white wine
1 1/2 cup hot and sweet cherry peppers halved or quartered depending on size
1/2 cup pepper juice, from the jar
1 cup chicken stock, plus a little more if needed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Coat a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pan with olive oil and bring the pan to a medium-high heat. Add the sausage and brown well.
Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Trim any excess skin and fat from the chicken. Season generously with salt and pepper and add to the pan that the sausage was browned in. Brown the chicken well.
Once the chicken is brown on all sides, remove it from the pan and reserve.
Drain the oil from the pan and return it to the heat. Coat the pan lightly with new olive oil, add the onions, and season with salt. Cook the onions over medium heat until they are translucent and very aromatic, 6 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for 1 to 2 more minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic.
Add the wine to the pan and reduce it by half. While the wine is reducing, scrape any browned bits off the bottom of the pan.
Return the sausage and chicken, along with any accumulated juices, to the pan and add the cherry peppers, cherry-pepper juice, chicken stock, and oregano.
Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and simmer, partially covered, for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer for 5 to 10 more minutes; add more chicken stock if the sauce has reduced too much.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, if needed. The finished dish should be slightly soupy, spicy, and delicious.