Just the name "Chicken Cacciatore" conjures up so many images in my head. Red checked tableclothes. Candles flickering in those red glass candle holders with the plastic netting on the outside. Wallpaper murals of Italian coastlines. It's all very Italian-American family style restaurant. It's one of those retro style dishes, like swiss steak or chicken divan, that seems like it would be fun and ironic to make but when you do it's bland and slightly disappointing. I sort of feel like chicken cacciatore falls into this category. It doesn't exactly feel like a classic Italian standard and it certainly doesn't feel fresh and modern.
Although it seems very 50's to me, chicken cacciatore is actually a very old dish. According to What's Cooking America? "The dish originated in the Renaissance period (1450-1600) when the only people who could afford to enjoy poultry and the sport of hunting were the well-to-do ... 'Cacciatore' means 'hunter’s style.' " Isn't it fun to learn?
Recipes for chicken cacciatore have many variations, but basically it's chicken braised in a tomato sauce. In addition to the very standard tomatoes (canned or fresh), onions, and garlic, many have peppers, either green (which I HATE), red or yellow or a combination. Most use oregano and rosemary. I've seen some that have carrots and celery. Some recipes use white wine and some use red. Any kind of chicken can be used - all thighs, bone in and skin on, a whole chicken, cut up, or just boneless skinless breasts and a lot of the recipes I've seen call for the chicken to be dredged in flour.
This recipe, which comes from Sara Foster's cookbook Fresh Every Day, piqued my interest because it features roasted mushrooms (we all know how much a fan I am of anything roasted) and instead of oregano, it calls for oregano's neglected little sister, marjoram. What a fun little twist.
8 ounces cremini (Baby Bella) or button mushrooms, wiped clean, stems trimed, and quartered
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
8 boneless and skinless chicken thighs, about 2 1/2 pounds (I used a combination of thighs and boneless, skinless chicken breasts)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
1 small yellow onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes (I used a can of whole San Marzano tomatoes which I diced)
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Place mushrooms in a small baking dish. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of oil and the vinegar, season with salt and pepper and toss to coat.
Roast mushrooms until golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes, stirring several times during the cooking process so they cook evenly. They should look like this:
Pat the chicken dry and season on both sides with salt, pepper and 1 tablespoon of the marjoram. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Lay the chicken in the skillet, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 4 to 5 minutes per side until lightly browned on both sides. Transfer the chicken to a platter and loosely cover with foil to keep warm.
Add the onion to the skillet and cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and sautee, stirring constantly for 1 minute more. Add the wine and bring to a boil, scrapping up all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Continue to boil for 2 to 3 minutes , until the wine has reduced by half. Stir in the tomatoes and the chicken broth, bring to a low boil, and simmer 10 to 12 minutes, until the sauce reduces and thickens. Taste for salt and pepper and season if neccesary.
Return the chicken to the pan and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through (the juices should run clear if pierced with the tip of a knife). Stir in the mushrooms, parsley, and the remaining marjoram and cook for 1 to 2 more minutes.
Place the chicken on individual plates and spoon the sauce over them. Garnish with the chopped parsley and the grated Parmesan cheese if you wish.
Now I've made chicken cacciatore once before using a different recipe and thought it was kind of feh. This one, however, was outstanding. The sauce gets nice and thick and the roasted mushrooms make it hearty and woodsy but not heavy. The marjoram gives the sauce a distinct freshness. From simmering in the sauce, the chicken soaks up the flavor and becomes beautifully tender. The dark meat really does have more flavor but the breasts taste great nontheless. It's actually kind of nice to do a mixture of the light and the dark. Although I did not use them, some capers would be a fantastic addition to the sauce. The cookbook also suggested maybe adding some olives, an idea which I also love. I served the chicken with roasted butternut squash and some sauteed spinach with garlic, of course it would be great over pasta as well.
Serves 4 to 6