My mother was a flawless hostess and her table was a paragon of style, with food to match. Meals were meticulously planned and served on her best china and linens, with wine in crystal goblets and after-dinner coffee from a polished silver pot. I won’t say she made it seem effortless, because I saw how hard she worked at perfection, but to our guests, she was the “hostess with the mostest.”
The most delicious thing she ever made, in my view, was chicken cacciatore. I thought those were the two loveliest words in the English language, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved phrase, “cellar door” (never mind that “cacciatore” is actually Italian). What I loved even more was the amazing flavor combination with juicy braised chicken and rich tomato-and-pepper sauce. She made it once for a dinner party and I begged her every successive night for months to make it again. She always declined, sometimes irritably. I imagined the reason was that the recipe was so complicated and exhausting, requiring specialized culinary skills and hard-to-find ingredients, that to make such a sublime dish was a process requiring hours or days. It might even involve an unpleasant bargain necessitating the sacrifice of her firstborn child. She loved me too much, I reasoned, to make chicken cacciatore twice.
Turns out the recipe was from a can of tomato soup, a fact I discovered while going through her old recipes. Apparently, she just didn’t feel like making it more than once. Or maybe my constant whining annoyed her and put her in a contrary state of mind. Either way, I never got to taste her chicken cacciatore again — which is why I was determined to make it this year, as a way to remember her but also to finally get what I wanted 30 years ago.
In a skillet with 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, brown 2 pounds bone-in chicken parts, washed, patted dry and lightly salted. (I couldn’t find a cut-up fryer, so I used thighs.) The recipe says to pour off the fat but I didn’t because that’s like pouring off the flavor. Add 1 103/4-ounce can of condensed cream of tomato soup, ½ cup chopped onion, 2 large minced garlic cloves (I used about 5), 1 tablespoon fresh minced oregano (I also added fresh basil), and ¼ cup Chianti or other dry red wine (I used merlot, which isn’t dry but it’ll do).
Cover the chicken and sauce and cook over low heat for 30 minutes. Add 1 green bell pepper, cut into bite-size strips and cook for 15 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add salt if needed.
Notes on polenta and pasta
I served this with oven-toasted polenta rounds and sauteed zucchini, since our garden is already producing so much zucchini that we’ll be eating it with every meal from now until Sept. 30. Polenta is available in most grocery stores, a cylinder of cooked and solidified cornmeal sold in sausagelike, plastic-wrapped tubes. I slice it into ½-inch-thick circles, brush with olive oil and sprinkle on a little salt and Parmesan cheese, then bake on a cookie sheet for 30 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees or until crisp around the edges.
You can serve chicken cacciatore over any kind of pasta, but please don’t just boil the pasta and glop it on a plate. Boil it in heavily salted water until it’s al dente, Italian for “to the tooth,” which means the noodle should stick to your tooth a little when you bite into it. To test for al-dente-ness, fork up a piece of pasta from the boiling water and bite into it. If there’s a tiny sliver of uncooked pasta in the middle of the noodle, that’s al dente.
Here’s the reason al dente matters: If you cook pasta all the way through, it will be too soft and come apart when tossed with the sauce. You want the noodle to keep its shape, to support the sauce without being subsumed into it. Pasta actually continues cooking and absorbing liquid after it’s removed from the boiling water, which is exactly what you want — you want it to absorb some of the sauce. You don’t want it so saturated with water that it can’t soak up any of that lovely marinara or ragu or cheesy alfredo. Finally, you don’t want to oversauce your pasta, so that there’s just a few rigatoni or mostaccioli or farfalle swimming in a sea of tomato-y soup. The sauce should just coat the pasta, clinging to all the little nooks and crannies, forming a sacred sisterhood of savory flavor.
I usually finish cooking my pasta right in the sauce. However, if you’re serving chicken cacciatore, the sauce is in with the chicken, and will be served over the pasta. To give the pasta more flavor, drain the noodles then toss them with a little olive oil and salt and let them sit for about five minutes before plating. Nestle a piece of chicken in the pasta and cover it with a couple spoonfuls of sauce.
Chicken cacciatore is perhaps most delicious when served with warm, buttery polenta, just out of the pot. Polenta is actually just cornmeal porridge. It’s the grits of Italy. All you need to make polenta is water or chicken stock (or milk, for a creamier polenta), a little salt, and a lot of time, since polenta must be simmered and stirred constantly for 30 to 50 minutes, depending on whether you soak the cornmeal beforehand to soften it. If you want to try it, the ratio is 1 cup raw polenta to 5 cups liquid, plus salt and butter to taste.
I don’t blame Mom for not acquiescing to my whims and making chicken cacciatore on demand. She labored earnestly to make our home clean and cheerful, and when she cooked for just our family, I think she preferred the simple, comforting foods she grew up with. But if my mom were here, I’d love nothing more than to invite her to dinner and make this dish for her, setting the table just as she taught me with my nicest china, polished silver and stemware. Instead of asking her to do something for me, I’d take care of her, letting her sit until the last cup and plate was cleared, sipping her coffee and looking satisfied.