We all like chicken.
~Malcolm X

Shortly after my fetching daughter’s glorious wedding in a mountain field, I felt compelled to write about rabbit cacciatore (July 24, 2013).

Today’s cacciatore recipe goes to show (as with coq au vin) just how many myriad versions exist of this rustic braise, so many of which are luscious. Really, what are “authentic” kitchens and “classic” recipes anyways — especially when your lands or regions have been invaded, conquered, occupied or colonized by other culture(s) over time?

For instance, tomatoes (pommodori) are often traced from origins in Peru, where they were domesticated by the Mayans and later cultivated by the Incas. These divine fruits likely entered Europe by way of Spain, after conquistador Hernán Cortés‘ early 16th century conquest of the flourishing Aztec city-state of Tenochtitlán, on a swampy island on the coast of Lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico. When these globular red (often yellow) berries arrived on Italian shores, they were strictly a curiosity for those who merely studied or ruminated about plants, but not anything anyone would ever consider eating. Tomatls (an Aztec term) were considered “strange and horrible things” — aberrant mutants, even feared as poisonous. It was not until later that tomatoes finally were embraced in Italy as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples.” Imported tomatoes assimilated easily to the Mediterranean rim climate and finally became a vital part of Italian cuisine in the 17th & 18th centuries and beyond — over two millennia after they were first domesticated in South and Mesoamerica. The sometimes tortured path of food.

The notion of pollo alla cacciatore seems a rather amusing take on hunters who utterly fail to nab anything while pocketing hearty fare from home. Gentle souls, they must be.

And yes, Malcolm, chicken is unforgettably irresistible.

CHICKEN CACCIATORE (POLLO ALLA CACCIATORE)

4-5 leg thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 T fresh rosemary, chopped
2 C all purpose flour

1 1/2 lbs heirloom tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
2 T extra virgin olive oil

3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t rosemary leaves, chopped
1 t oregano leaves, chopped
1 T fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Sea salt

1/2 C dry red wine
1 C chicken broth
2 T apple cider vinegar
1 14 1/2 oz canned tomatoes in juice, diced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 C crimini and/or shittake mushrooms, trimmed and thickly sliced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Rosemary sprigs, for serving
1/2 C basil, ribboned, for serving
2-3 T capers, drained, for serving

Penne, rice, risotto or other pastas, cooked according to instructions

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium high in a large, heavy skillet until shimmering. Meanwhile, season the chicken with rosemary, salt and pepper and then dredge in flour, shaking off excess, so the leg-thighs are just slightly coated. Brown, in batches if necessary, for about 4-5 minutes on each side. Transfer the chicken pieces to a bowl as they are done and loosely tent. Discard the olive oil and chicken fat from the pan.

Next, turn to a Dutch oven, place on medium heat, add the 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and the onion, heirloom tomatoes, and carrot, as well as a pinch of sea salt. Cook and stir, until the vegetables just begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, oregano, parsley and sea salt to taste. Cover, turn the heat to medium low and cook, stirring often, until the mixture is barely soft and the garlic not brown.

Turn the heat back up to medium, stir in the mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook while stirring, until the mushrooms are just tender.

Stir in the wine, vinegar and stock and bring to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, until the wine-vinegar-stock mix has reduced by about a third. Add the canned tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have cooked down.

Return the chicken pieces to the pan, so they are well submerged in the tomato mixture. Cover and braise over medium heat for about 30 minutes, until the juices run pale yellow from the chicken.

Place pasta, rice or a simple risotto in large shallow bowls and place over a chicken quarter and ladle with sauce. Strew the rosemary sprigs, chiffonaded basil, and capers over the top and serve with a Sangiovese.

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Pad Thai Sans Nuts

December 7, 2011

Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day
Chatting with my messmates, passing time away
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees
Goodness, how delicious, eatin’ goober peas
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eatin’ goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!
~P. Nutt (A.E. Blackmar)

Earthnuts, ground nuts, monkey nuts, pygmy nuts, pig nuts—peanuts are not nuts.

Despite the name, peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are a dehiscent legume in the family Fabaceae, related to peas, lentils, chickpeas and friends. They are composed of a curved single seed-bearing carpel that splits open along two seams.

Native to South America, peanuts were domesticated some 8,000 years ago when pre-Columbian cultures dined on and even depicted them in art. When Spanish conquistadors invaded Mesoamerica they found the Aztecs growing peanuts the locals called tlalcacahuatl.

In the early 16th century, Portuguese traders took peanuts from South America to Africa where they became highly revered and flourished as a staple crop. Around colonial times, slave traders reversed the course and shipped them along with wretchedly stowed human cargo to North America. In one central African language, Kikongo, the word for peanut is nguba which morphed into the vernacular “goober” peas.

From the better half of the scientific name, hypogaea derives from Greek for underground, combining hypo “under” + gaia Greek “earth.” An annual herbaceous plant growing some 1′-2′ tall, peanuts begin as an above ground orange-veined, yellow-petaled flower. The flower is produced near the base of a slender pedicel (peduncle, stalk) that curves downward.

After pollination, the flower withers and cells beneath the ovary begin to develop a peg that helps force the ovary into the ground. The curved pedicel elongates, bends down to kiss the moist earth, and then forces the ovary underground. The peg has a cap of cells that protects the delicate ovary as the pedicle thrusts into the fertile soil. Continued growth then plunges the ovary under further where a tiny embryonic plant with two tender, fleshy halves develop, and the mature fruit becomes a legume pod. What a resplendent, albeit a bit forcible, act. Oh baby, oh baby.

Once the subterranean, seed-bearing pod matures, functional roots and photosynthetic leaves emerge. The pod coat changes color from white to a reddish brown with wrinkled, veined shells that are constricted between pairs of usually two seeds per pod. The entire bush, including root growth, is removed from the soil and the pods are allowed to dry. After the peanuts have dried sufficiently, they are threshed, removing the pods from the rest of the bush. The beans are then roasted to become those dried, wrinkled, vein-cloaked, seed bearing carpels we know and love.

Today, thousands of peanut cultivars are grown, with the more common groups being Spanish, Virginia, and Valencia. A source of monounsaturated fats, peanuts feature an array of other nutrients including vitamin E, niacin, folate, protein, manganese, and even lifespan extending resveratrol. Not only do peanuts contain oleic acid, they are rich in antioxidants.

Centuries old, now ubiquitous Pad Thai (“fried Thai style”) was originally made with a noodle brought by Vietnamese traders to the ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. It became popularized in the 1930’s as part of a campaign of nationalist fervor and an effort to reduce rice consumption as the economy had become overly dependent on rice exports. The trendy dish has so many variants, particular as pertains to the progression of ingredients into the hot wok with timing being everything.

I might suggest you arrange the ingredients mise en place and not make too many servings at once until you find your dance steps.

PAD THAI

6 ozs rice stick noodles (banh pho)

3-4 T tamarind paste
1/4 C nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
1/3 C honey
2 T rice vinegar
Pinch of red pepper flakes or Thai chile powder

3 T peanut oil
1/2 C chopped scallions, chopped
2-3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2-3 large eggs, beaten
1/2 small head Napa cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1 C mung bean sprouts
1/2 lb small shrimp, peeled
4-6 ozs tofu, cut into 1/2″ strips

1/2 C roasted peanuts, chopped
1/4 C fresh cilantro, stemmed and chopped
2 limes, quartered

Mix tamarind paste, fish sauce, honey and vinegar in a small saucepan over medium low heat and bring just to a simmer. Stir in red pepper flakes or Thai chile powder and set aside, keeping warm.

Put noodles in a large bowl and add hot water to cover. By far, the trickiest part is the soaked noodles. They should be just tender yet still solid, not completely expanded and soft. When in doubt, undersoak.

Put one tablespoon peanut oil in a large wok over high heat and when oil shimmers, add the tofu and cook until crisp and lightly brown, moving constantly, about 1 minute. Remove the tofu from the pan to a small bowl and set aside.

Keep wok hot, add the remainder of peanut oil, then scallions and garlic and cook for about a minute. Add eggs to pan, and once they begin to set, scramble until just barely done. Add cabbage, shrimp and bean sprouts and continue to cook until cabbage just begins to wilt and shrimp begins to turn pink.

Add drained noodles to pan along with tamarind sauce and tofu. Toss everything together to coat with sauce and combine well. When noodles are softened and warmed through, serve in shallow soup bowls, sprinkling each dish with peanuts and garnishing with cilantro and lime wedges.

Ad Hominy

October 6, 2011

Nunca falta un pelo en la sopa (There’s always a fly in the soup).
~Mexican proverb

Served both whole and ground, hominy is simply corn kernels without the germ. In a process called nixtamalización, dried field corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution (often slaked lime) until the outer layers can be hulled. This yields slightly altered flavor and a different texture with enhanced aromas and tenderness. With Mesoamerican roots dating to circa 1500-1200 BCE, hominy is just another culinary extension of the maize culture that was birthed and flourished there.

The English “hominy” is derived from the word maize in the now extinct Powhatan tongue, a subgroup of Algonquin languages. A confederation of tribes, Powhatans lived in tidewater Virginia during pre-colonial days. As became the habit, white colonists rendered the native dialect dormant as well as nearly eradicating the tributary peoples. Eugenics at work.

When whole, hominy can be found in heavenly menudo (hominy and tripe soup) or pozole. It can also be ground coarsely to make hominy grits, or even finer into a dough to make masa for tortillas, tamales, empanadas, arepas y amigos.

Pozole is a classic pork stew with hominy and dried red chiles. A hearty, rich feast which bathes the senses. This recipe has an admitted shortcut. While using canned hominy may not be preferable—the time and effort that need be allotted to preparing the lime mixture, then cooking, cleaning, hulling, washing and deflowering the corn can be a touch daunting. My apologies to purists.

POZOLE ROJO

6 large, plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
8 C water
3 C chicken broth
2 lbs boneless pork shoulder
3 lbs pork neck bones
1/2 t dried cumin seed, toasted, then ground
1 t dried oregano, crumbled

2 1/2 qts canned white hominy, well rinsed and drained

4 large dried ancho chiles, stemmed, seeded and deveined
4 large dried guajillo chiles, stemmed seeded and deveined
2 C water

1 T sea salt

Corn tortillas
Canola or vegetable oil

Garnishes
Cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
White onion, finely chopped
Radishes, thinly sliced
Lime wedges

Corn tortillas
Canola or vegetable oil

In a large heavy kettle or Dutch oven bring water and broth just to a boil with sliced garlic and pork shoulder and neck bones. Skim surface and add oregano. Gently simmer pork, uncovered, until tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add the hominy during the last 45 minutes.

While the pork is simmering, tear the chiles into larger pieces and toast in a heavy large skillet over medium heat, pressing them against the surface some. Once they blister turn and repeat. Boil in water, then soak for about 30 minutes. Drain, place in a blender or food processor and puree, slowly adding some water, until a paste forms. Strain and add to the simmering soup, stirring for awhile until incorporated. Season with salt.

Now while the pozole is simmering, work on the tortillas. First, stack and cut into wedges. Then, spread into a single layer, and cover lightly with a dry towel to keep from curling. Allow to dry or they will be greasy. In a heavy medium non-stick skillet heat 3/4″ oil until hot but not smoking and fry in batches, stirring occasionally, until lightly golden, about 30 seconds per side. Transfer tortilla wedges with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Once drained, carefully place in a bowl.

Remove the neck bones and shoulder from the broth. When cool enough, remove the meat from the neck bones and roughly shred all the meat from the shoulder. Return the meat to the pot. Again season with salt to taste.

Ladle the stew into large bowls and top with the garnishes of choice. Serve with the tortillas.