|My Tuscan Chianti Chicken Cacciatora|
Having a villa would mean getting away from it all - I imagine a rustic farmhouse overlooking vineyards, sitting at a big wooden table with my husband as we tear into fresh bread and let a bottle of Chianti breathe.
I love the flavours from this region, from zingy lemons (and limoncello) to the earthy taste of truffles when they are grated over dishes. The red wines from this region are smooth yet spicy and Italian olive oil is renowned world wide.
I also like the simplicity of food from Tuscany. Pasta might just be served with a little oil and butter - when freshly made pasta is that good, why disguise it with a sauce? The best Tuscan food is locally produced and enjoyed according to the season; chicken is free range (probably wandering around the rustic farmhouse of my imagination) and mushrooms are foraged for.
There re two other things that stand out to be about Tuscan cooking. Food is about family, and typical dishes are prepared in large quantities to serve a big family around the kitchen table. It is also traditionally peasant cooking - in other words, cheap and not wasteful. Some of the best known Italian dishes are things that use cheaper cuts of meat, are bulked out with cannellini beans, use up stale bread (panzanella), and using local herbs and vegetables to bring out the natural flavours of the dish. These days rather than being something that is done through necessity, due to lack of money, this is something that many cooks aspire to - natural flavours coming through, cooking more economically and feeding a whole family with a robust, filling meal.
I was genuinely thinking of looking into booking a Tuscan villa for our holiday next year when I was invited to enter a competition run by To Tuscany, a website that specialises in villa rentals in that very region. It must be fate!
They asked me to create my own Tuscan-inspired recipe using typical flavours and influences from Italy, so I started to brainstorm a list of ingredients. I also thought about all the things I described above - cheaper cuts of meat, bringing out natural flavours, and a meal that could be cooked in large quantities if needed, and came up with this recipe for chicken cacciatora.
Cacciatora means 'hunter' in Italian and this is a kind of hunter's stew - perhaps something that would be waiting when they returned home from a day's hunt. It traditionally uses chicken, game or rabbit, and is cooked in a tomato-based sauce, sometimes with wine added, featuring onion and garlic, sometimes carrot or red peppers - there are various versions.
I decided to make mine even more Tuscan, if such a thing is possible, by making Chianti wine an important feature of the dish (Chianti is in Tuscany, if you didn't know). Italian olives stood out to me as a good addition, both for the colour that they give the dish and the different flavour and texture. I love balsamic vinegar and how it can bring out the flavour in dishes so decided to add a splash; my sauce was going to based on tinned tomatoes and the wine, with bay leaves and rosemary for flavour (and again they look great in the dish, though remove the bay leaf before serving).
Finally for a more modern, more indulgent twist, I sprinkled a little grated mozzarella on top of each chicken thigh just before serving, allowing it to melt - the cheese has a subtle taste but adds a little creaminess that is otherwise missing from the dish and to me just seemed to be the finishing touch. Serve the cacciatora with a hunk of fresh bread and a green salad - and the rest of the Chianti of course!
To serve four, you need:
4 large chicken thighs
pinch of salt salt
pinch of ground black pepper
1/2 bottle of Chianti
1 tbsp. olive oil
100g diced pancetta
2 bay leaves
sprig of rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
a large handful of green Italian olives
400g tinned tomatoes
generous dash of balsamic vinegar
pinch of smoked paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
50g grated mozzarella
Season the chicken and marinade in the wine for at least one hour or overnight if possible.
Preheat oven to 180C. Transfer the chicken and pancetta to an ovenproof dish with the wine marinade. Mix in the tomatoes, garlic, olives, bay leaf and rosemary. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar, a pinch of smoked paprika and the oregano and cover the pot with a lid.
I want to win a week in one of your Tuscany villas!