This week I was going to be all about the bright-tendrils-tender-blooms talk that colors San Francisco’s food scene in the spring. And then last night it started raining, and this morning I woke up sniffling, and Alabama officially became a state no woman should ever visit again. I need some fucking comfort food this weekend.
So, here you go: my version of a very old school chicken cacciatore, it’s an easy recipe that requires a bit of time and much love. It counts on anchovies and red wine for depth of flavor and simmers in more liquid than really necessary so that one can have leftover sauce for a pasta dinner the following day.
for 4 to 6 people
1 small yellow onion
1 celery rib
salt, as needed
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes
1 garlic clove
6 anchovy fillet
8 to 10 parsley sprigs
4 whole chicken legs
1 cup red wine
black pepper to taste
Cut the onion in half, stem to root, and slice into thin half-moons. Slice the carrots lengthwise and cut thin half-wheels. Slice the celery into thin crescents. Toss together in a bowl and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a shallow saucepan over medium heat. Initially, the oil will sink and slither if you tilt the pot, engaging no sense other than your sight. As the heat weakens the bonds that hold oil together, it will start trotting, then running and shimmering. Its fragrance will tickle your nose even if you do not bend close to the stove. This is when you toss in the vegetables you just sliced.
With salt to assist, they will sweat moisture and become translucent and soften slightly. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the onions have lost their shape and the celery and carrot are tender. Stir often to prevent sticking, but if the vegetables do stick, add a couple of tablespoons of hot water.
Raise the heat to high and add the tomatoes. Fill the empty tomato can halfway with warm water, swirl it around to capture all the tomatoiness left behind and pour it in the pan. Crush the tomatoes with your hands or a tomato masher. Hands are much more fun, but if you insist on keeping a certain distance between your skin and heat, then go for the masher. Either way, the ultimate goal is to have a chunky, soulful texture.
Bring to a boil then lower the heat until the sauce simmers. Season with a pinch of salt and cover partially. Cook for about 30 minutes, until the wateriness is gone and the sauce has lost its acidity but is still bright in color and taste, adding more salt if necessary. It is important to stir occasionally to loosen from the bottom during cooking. If the tomato scorches it will taste like ash and be absolutely unsalvageable.
While the tomatoes are cooking, get the rest of the dish ready. Sprinkle a little salt all over the chicken legs and leave them on the counter to come to room temperature. Mince the garlic clove and anchovies together until they are almost a paste. Pick the parsley leaves and chop them finely. Select a skillet or sauté pan large enough to comfortably hold the 4 pieces of chicken in one layer.
When the tomato sauce is 10 minutes away from done, pour the remaining olive oil in a skillet then heat it on medium until it is just below smoke point. Gently arrange the chicken pieces in the hot oil, skin-side down. Patiently wait; the chicken will tell you when it’s ready by letting itself be lifted easily and without sticking to the pan. Turn over to brown the other side. The skin will be a rich golden color. Please obey the chicken and do not rush this step; browning is a reaction that happens when the hot cooking fat meets the protein at the right temperature and for the right amount of time.
Now add the anchovies and garlic mince and swirl around very quickly, barely a minute, just so that they melt in the hot oil and coat the chicken with deliciousness.
Bring the heat to high and douse with the red wine. Listen for the sizzling noise and watch as the vapors float to your nose, delivering a punch that will pinch your throat and make your eyes narrow in defense. As the wine reduces, the punch will change into a caress lapping your cheekbones and eyelashes. This is the time to add all of the tomato sauce followed by three cups of hot water. Stir gently and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen the flavor-laden caramelization.
When the liquid boils, lower the heat until it simmers gently but visibly. Partially cover and cook for 25 to 30 minutes, until the chicken is quite tender but still stays on the bone. The skin will lift slightly from where it meets the leg bone and the meat will start shrinking away from the foot joint.
Transfer the chicken to a warm platter and cover with aluminum foil so it retains heat. Taste the sauce and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Cook uncovered for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until the wateriness is gone and the sauce is a little thicker. Pour over the chicken and dust with the parsley before serving.
Note: You can use chicken breasts for this preparation if you prefer it to dark meat. Make sure they come whole and, ideally with the bone. Reduce the cooking time by about five minutes or they will be quite dry.
Note: The quantities I have given will leave quite a bit of sauce behind; store it judiciously for later use with pasta. I prefer a short pasta cut with this, but pick your favorite. Whichever you choose, be sure to cook it al dente. To do this, I usually subtract a couple of minutes from the suggested cooking time on the box. Heat the sauce very well before tossing it with the pasta in a warm bowl. If it seems a little dry, stir in a couple of spoonfuls of the pasta cooking water. Dust generously with parmigiano and bring to the table while still quite warm.