Ever since losing my cookbook library to a flood from super-storm Sandy, I’ve been rebuilding it slowly. Since many of the books in my original collection are now out of print, I’ve been relying on used-book sellers both local and online. One book I was especially happy to secure, at an affordable price, is Jeanne Carola Francesconi’s La Cucina Napoletana. Close to 700 pages in length, it’s a treasure trove of classic Neapolitan recipes, often succinctly written, with many ingredient measurements marked “q.b.” which means “quanto basta,” Italian for “just enough.” Given her laconic style, I’m pretty certain that Francesconi had relatively experienced cooks in mind as her audience. But even a novice one can acquire an understanding of authentic Neapolitan cuisine, which today seems sadly to have been overshadowed by its Northern counterparts or bastardized by many popular chain restaurants.
Planning, preparing, and sharing dinner with my husband may be the quotidian pleasure I enjoy the most. It’s our time to look back on our day, discuss what’s on our mind, and give thanks for what we have. Unfortunately, fate occasionally steps in, snatches this delight away, and leaves me alone for dinner. In my youth, I may have handled this disappointment with a pre- and post-prandial libation, skipping the dinner between them. These days, however, being much older and a tad wiser, I may limit myself to one cocktail but shall never forego cooking and having at least a simple meal after it. I guess it’s my way of countering fortune and carrying on.
With summer almost upon us, zucchini have begun appearing at our local farmers market. Indeed, seeing them there last week brought back memories of two childhood dishes my aunt would always make throughout the summer. One of these was a zucchini salad with fresh mint and garlic dressed simply with vinegar and olive oil, which I wrote about here last year. The other was zucchini a scapece, which uses the same ingredients but a different preparation that gives the dish its name. The Italian “scapece” is a derivative from the Spanish word, “escabeche,” used for a variety of foods marinated in vinegar after cooking.
Failing to go shopping on Sunday left us with limited choices for supper. Sure, we had plenty of pasta and cheese on hand, but I had served pasta the night before. There were also a few dishes we had in the freezer, but defrosting would take too long. A search through the fridge yielded a fresh supply of eggs that eventually led me to prepare a long-time favorite: Uova in Purgatorio, or Eggs in Purgatory.
Except for the Italian-American chicken parm, cacciatore (Italian for hunter’s style) may be the most ubiquitous poultry offering on Italian restaurant menus. As might be expected, given its popularity, there are many variations on the dish both here in the U.S. as well as in Italy. Even at home, my mother and my aunt, Sicilian and Neapolitan respectively, prepared their distinctive versions: my mother’s more savory with capers, olives, and vinegar; my aunt’s more sweet and spicy with onions, tomatoes, and crushed red pepper.
Last night, I chose to prepare a version closer to my aunt’s based on a recipe from Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table. This Neapolitan cacciatore epitomizes the simplicity of Italian cooking, calling for just a few ingredients and a minimum of technique. However this austerity requires that the basic ingredients, the prima materia, be of the highest quality—especially the tomatoes. My aunt would use the Roma tomatoes she jarred every August. Working in the confines of a New York City apartment, I rely on the imported canned whole San Marzano variety. As for technique, it’s essential that you take the time to brown the chicken thoroughly and avoid overcrowding the pan to get the most flavor from the bird.
I’m sure many of my readers have their own version of cacciatore and I would enjoy hearing about them. As I said earlier the recipe below is based on one from Arthur Schwartz. The original recipe uses a whole chicken and also includes a variation with red peppers. Here’s a link to the original on the author’s website.
Chicken Cacciatore Adapted from Naples at Table by Arthur Schwartz
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 skin-on bone-in chicken thighs, well trimmed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion sliced thin (3/16”)
2 5-inch sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 cup dry white Vermouth
Big pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 28 ounce can imported whole and peeled San Marzano tomatoes, well-drained and coarsely chopped
1. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper.
2. In a 12-inch saute pan with cover, heat the oil over medium-high heat and when it is hot, brown the chicken on the skin side first, then the underside. Do not crowd the pan. Brown the chicken in batches if necessary, setting aside the browned chicken on a plate until the rest is done.
3. When the last few pieces of chicken are almost browned and still in the pan, add the onion and rosemary sprigs and sauté until the onion is tender.
4. Arrange all the browned chicken in the pan, skin side up, and add the vermouth. Add the hot red pepper flakes, and then let the wine cook until it has almost entirely evaporated, just a couple of minutes. While it is reducing, turn the chicken in the liquid once or twice, but leave it skin side up at the end.
5. Add the tomatoes. Cover the pan, lower the heat, and let cook at a gentle simmer, without turning, for about 30 minutes, or until the chicken is done. Check the pan every so often to make sure the sauce does not stick to the pan.
6. Remove the chicken to a serving platter, increase the heat to high and let the sauce reduce for about 2 minutes. Adjust for seasoning.
7. Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately.
Wine Pairing: Taurasi, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo