madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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orecchiette pasta in a creamy zucchini and saffron sauce

orecchiette, little ear shaped pasta from Southern Italy

orecchiette, little ear shaped pasta from Southern Italy

I find making fresh pasta an incredibly relaxing activity. I could fashionably say it’s therapeutic but I don’t feel the need to have therapy as often as having pasta. My latest passion in “pasta relaxation” is orecchiette, meaning little ears, a semolina pasta traditionally made in Puglia.

It’s the sort of thing that gives a good excuse for gathering friends around a table and while away an afternoon. Do watch the video at the end of this post to see what I mean. That woman must have made so many orecchiette that does not even need to look at what she’s doing. It’s magical.

I can’t produce them quite so fast, but it’s actually easier than it looks if you make sure to obtain a firm dough, use a round tipped knife and don’t get discouraged if the first batch of ten will look a little lopsided. As you get the hang of it you will wonder why you ever found it difficult.

Recipe

Dough

  • 200 gr ( 2 cup) semolina flour
  • 80 ml (2/3 cup) water
  • 2 teaspoon olive oil
  • a pinch of salt

I make all doughs in the food processor as explained here . You can also make the dough by mixing all ingredients by hand until smooth and elastic as shown in the video below. It’s most important that you allow the dough to rest at least 20 min and up to one hour. This way the gluten absorbs moisture and makes the dough pliable and easy to shape.

Once your dough has rested, transfer it onto a work-top. A grainy wooden cutting board or pasta dough helps grip the dough.

use a round tipped knife and work on a wooden board

use a round tipped knife and work on a wooden board

Divide the dough into fist-size portions, and cover them with a cotton kitchen towel. Roll 1 portion of dough into a 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick rope.

Use a knife to cut and drag a 1/3-inch piece of dough from end of rope facing you.

Holding the knife at a 45-degree angle to the work surface, press and roll dough around the tip of the knife toward you. You will obtain something similar to gnocchi but empty in the middle.
Now turn out each piece of dough over your thumb in the opposite direction to form a concave shape, and transfer onto the pasta board or a tea towel. Repeat with remaining dough. Orecchiette can be stored at room temperature in a single layer overnight.

While the orecchiette dry, start boiling your pasta water and prepare this quick sauce in a saucepan which must be large enough to hold all the pasta once is cooked .

Zucchini and saffron sauce

  • 2 medium zucchini, diced
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • a pinch of saffron to taste
  • 2 tablespoon heavy cream or ricotta
  • 2 tablespoon grated Parmesan

Saute zucchini and onion in one tablespoon olive oil until just starting to become golden. Add cream (or ricotta) and saffron and simmer briefly until just warmed through. Cook pasta in plenty salted boiling water, drain, transfer in the sauce pan and toss with the sauce over high heat as explained here. Finish with grated Parmesan and a drizzle of  good extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

Serves 2

Any extra unccoked orecchiette can be frozen. First, freeze them in a single layer on a plastic tray, then transfer them to a resealable plastic bag and return them to the freezer. Boil directly from the freezer.


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spinach and ricotta crespelle: savoury crêpes Italian style

crespelle are thin pancakes similar to French crepes

crespelle are thin pancakes similar to French crepes

I have had friends who wouldn’t invite me for dinner because they thought I was a better cook then they are. Actually, I really adore it when someone cooks for me. I don’t care if it’s perfect. Cooking for someone is an act of love and I love to be pampered. Don’t we all do? Make me a fried egg, please, I’ll love you for anything you cook for me.

There’s another fact.  I hate to be a pain in the neck when someone invites me for a meal. However, I have all sorts of food intolerances. They even change with the time which is quite confusing for hosts who think they know my problems. I’ve been dairy free for 10 years. Now I can have dairy in moderate amounts but I can’t have wheat.

Conversely, and because I do cooking classes, I have found myself in the position having no idea what to give to someone as because of their health or their choices they just can’t be “normal” (like me :) )

This recipe is a life saver for modern stomachs and desperate cooks. Not only it can be prepared in advance. It can also be made vegetarian by skipping the ham and gluten-free by substituting the flour. For the gluten-free version I use my GF cake-flour mix which works fantastic. In fact you don’t even know there’s no wheat.

Recipe

for the crêpes:

  • 250 ml (1 cup) milk
  • 125 gr (3/4 cup) regular flour or gluten free equivalent ( I use my basic cake mix flour)
  • 30 gr melted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • a pinch of salt, a pinch of nutmeg
  • two tablespoon grated Parmesan

for the filling:

  • 300 gr (2/3 lb) blanched spinach, excess moisture removed by squeezing.
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely minced
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) whole milk ricotta
  • 120 gr (4 oz) cooked ham, diced
  • 4 tablespoon Parmesan
  • for the topping
  • 1 and 1/2 cup quick Béchamel
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

For the crêpes, mix the liquid butter, eggs and milk  in a bowl. Add flour, salt, nutmeg and whisk.  Brush a 15 cm/6 inch , non-stick frying pan with melted butter and set over medium heat. Pour a small ladleful of the  batter (about 3 tablespoon) in the pan and swirl to make  the thinnest possible pancake. Cook for 1-2 minutes each side then remove and set aside. Repeat, to make 14-15 pancakes. I only butter the pan once at the beginning.

In a separate pan, heat the garlic briefly in 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, add the cooked spinach, salt lightly and warm through to infuse with the garlicky oil. Transfer in a food processor together with  ricotta, the ham and two tablespoons Parmesan. Process briefly until smooth.

Preheat the oven to 180˚C/350 °F and lightly  grease a 22 x 30 cm baking dish with butter or olive oil

Distribute the spinach mixture in the centre of each pancake. Spread filling all over the pancake then roll like cannelloni. Place in the baking dish. Spread crepes with Bechamel and  sprinkle with two more tablespoon of Parmesan. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden and bubbly. Serve hot.

Serves 5-6 as a main dish

spinach pancakes

rolled and ready to be smothered with white sauce and then baked to soft gloriousness


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springtime berry tiramisu

sweet and fresh just like spring, berry tiramisu

sweet and fresh just like spring, berry tiramisu

Life is sweet in Umbria right now. Spring is here in all its over-the-top beauty. There are flowers everywhere, I can practically see the plants growing. In fact, it feels almost like summer, warm, bright and full of promise.

We are busy at the moment. Planning an Olive Harvest celebration for next autumn. Planting rosemary bushes outside the new vacation rental which is almost ready (more news soon).

Our B&B guests have returned to populate our house with laughter and stories. They often spend long evenings on the terrace around glasses of wine, gazing at the views until the stars start twinkling.

Poppies have made their arrivals and so have the strawberries. I want to be like Google, taking naps in the sun, but I must run, there’s so much to do!

Recipe

  • approx 30 Italian lady fingers
  • brown sugar for dusting
  • a pan or plate that can hold the cookies in two layers

for the mascarpone custard

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 6 tablespoon /75 gr. sugar
  • 375 gr / 10 oz  mascarpone
  • 1 and 1/2 cup/ 375 gr. chilled heavy cream (whipping cream)

for the berries

  • 1 cup dry Marsala or other sweet wine
  • 600-700 gr (24 oz) mixed berries of your choice. Fresh is best, but a couple of bags of good quality frozen berries are a life saver if one is short of time or it’s not the right time of the season.

Berries:

Prepare the berries up to 1 day before you need them. Place them in a glass or porcelain bowl, add 3-4 tablespoon sugar and 1 cup sweet wine. Let it macerate  a minimum of two hours so they release their lovely violet juice which you will need to soak the cookies (see below).

Make the tiramisu at least 4 hours before serving and up to one day ahead. I make  tiramisu with a zabaglione  instead of raw eggs, so it’s safe to keep it refrigerated for a little longer if needed.

Custard:

Cream egg yolks and sugar in a metal bowl then set it over a saucepan of barely simmering water. Keep beating using a whisk or an electric mixer until very warm to the touch but not quite boiling. Ideally the mixture should reach 70° C/ 160 °F.  Add 1 tablespoon Marsala and whisk thoroughly for another minute or so. Remove bowl from heat, place it in an ice bath and let it cool. Add the mascarpone and whisk until smooth.

Whip the cream in a separate bowl until it holds stiff peaks. Fold it gently into the mascarpone mixture.

Assemble tiramisu:

Line the bottom of a  pan or serving dish with half of the ladyfingers in a single layer, making compact rows. Spread 1/2 of the berries on top with about half of their juices. Make sure to drizzle the juice evenly over the cookies so they will be soft but not soggy. Cover with  1/2 of  the mascarpone custard. Repeat with one additional layer of cookies, berries, juice and mascarpone custard.

Cover the pan with clingfilm and chill for at least two hours and up to 1 day.  Dust with brown sugar before serving.

Serves 12

you can make it with strawberry or raspberry but I prefer a mixture of berries

you can make it with strawberry, raspberry, blueberry or a mixture of what’s in season


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Traditional Italian Easter dove bread

Colomba, the heavenly Easter sweet bread from Italy

Colomba, the heavenly Easter sweet bread from Italy

COLOMBA PASQUALE FATTA IN CASA.

You may not be the most beautiful dove but you have a sweet, buttery heart. You may not be not the softest but I have made you with stone-ground artisan flour, organic sugar and eggs, homemade candied orange peel and only 1/4 teaspoon yeast. I’ve made you with love and all the necessary time.

Actually, I did not have the time for you. Tomorrow we open our B&B. In the last few days I have laundered 30 blankets, cleaned, waxed and polished every object and piece of furniture and stocked the refrigerator and larder. I am tired and sleepless but I wanted to make something good for my family for Easter.

On second thought, there is always time for something good.

Recipe

Poolish (pre-ferment):

  • 60 gr flour (scant 1/2 cup)
  • 2 tablespoon yogurt with live cultures (e.g. a probiotic)
  • enough water to make a very thick batter (1 and 1/2 to 2 tablespoon)
  • 1 gr ( 1/4 teaspoon) dry yeast

1st dough:

  • 260 gr ( 1 and 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoon) good-quality strong flour
  • 75 gr (1/4 cup) light brown sugar
  • 100 gr (4/5 stick) butter
  • 100 ml (2/5 cup) water at room temperature
  • 1 egg

2nd dough:

  • 60 gr flour (scant 1/2 cup)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 and 1/2 tablespoon soft butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Glaze

  • 1/2 cup regular sugar
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch

Decoration

  • 1/2 cup whole almonds
  • icing sugar
  • 4 tablespoon chopped candied orange peel

Colomba, the Easter dove shaped bread, was invented in 1930 by Angelo Motta to extend the success of industrially produced pandoro and panettone. All of them are descendents of the brioche-like sweet breads made for the Italian Renaissance courts some 500 years ago.

In our home, we stay away from mass-produced holidays breads. As I mentioned in my breadmaker Pandoro recipe, commercial Christmas breads that have a shelf life of a year, can’t possibly be healthy for you.

Making such a large brioche is work and time intensive. I simplified the method using the dough cycle of my bread-maker as follows:

Day 1, early afternoon

In a glass or ceramic bowl mix the poolish ingredients, cover with a tea towel and let it rest until evening. As I am using only a minimal amount of yeast you will see a very small increase of volume, don’t worry. This allows for flexibility in the preparation. The dough raises so slowly that if you do anything one hour later nothing gets spoiled. In addition the dough has the time to develop flavor with hardly any acidity.

Early evening

Assemble all ingredients for 1st Dough in the bread-maker and add the poolish. Start the shortest dough cycle (mine takes 2.2 hours). After 10 min or so open the lid quickly to check if the dough has formed, close and leave it there until the next day. You might need to add more water as not all flours absorb the same amount of moisture. You need to have a soft dough.

Day 2, morning

Open the bread-maker lid and add all ingredients for 2nd Dough to the previous one. Start the dough cycle once again. When finished leave it in the breadmaker with the lid closed.

Day 2, afternoon

Transfer the dough onto a floured worktop. The dough is very soft at this stage. Use a plastic flat spatula to handle it. Lightly knead in the candied orange peel.

Transfer the dough  into a generously buttered dove-shaped mold. The first time I made this recipe, I did not have the dove mold, so I cut it into 3 cylinders, a longer one for the body and two for the wings. I then shaped it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper as shown in the picture.

if you don't have a dove mold, use parchment paper and 4 ramekins to keep it in shape

if you don’t have a dove mold, use parchment paper and ramekins to keep it in shape.

If you find a mold you will need one that can hold a 750 gr cake (7- 8 cups, 11 x 8 inches).

Cover carefully with a light tea towel and let it raise for another hour or so in a draft-free area of your kitchen.

For the glaze: mix sugar, cornstarch and enough water to make a thick paste. Drizzle or pipe the glaze over the dove. Be gentle or it will deflate! Sprinkle the surface with whole almonds, a few additional slivers of candied peel and icing sugar or sugar pearls.

Bake in preheated oven at 170 °C (340 °F) for 40 min or until beautifully golden. Cool at room temperature and unmold several hours later or the next day.

HAPPY EASTER!

thsi is the Colomba in its proper dove shape mould

this is the Colomba in its proper dove shape mould


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broccoli meatloaf

broccoli meatloaf

oh-so-yummy and full of goodness

Every time I make meatloaf I have to think of my friend AnnMarie. A sophisticated American-Italian from New York, she told me that her mum would serve meatloaf only to family.

Apparently she did not consider it presentable to guests due to its lack of elegance. The remark caused a certain level of worry as the dish had been ruthlessly celebrated in my house – and with pride – as one of the best inventions to be placed on a dinner table.

This was a long time ago, more than 20 years. Meanwhile something must have happened as the meatloaf has been voted in 2007 the seventh-favorite dish in the US. Someone must have decided to stop keeping it to themselves.

This is our official family meatloaf, stuffed with fragrant broccoli which  are in season now. You can of course use other veggies like asparagus or green beans. It’s actually a fabulous dish for entertaining as you can prepare and cook it a day ahead.

Slice it one hour before serving and pop it in the microwave for a few minutes just to soften it. Don’t over-warm it though. It will fall apart and lose its good looks.

Recipe

  • 600 gr ( 1.3 lb) minced pork, beef or a mixture of both
  • 120 gr  (1/2 cup) seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 3-4 tablespoon milk
  • half a teaspoon salt
  • a pinch of black pepper
  • 100 gr (3.5 oz) mild cheese like caciotta or provola, diced
  • 60 gr (2 oz)  guanciale (sub. with pancetta if not available)
  • 300 gr broccoli (about 1 small head) cleaned and divided into florets
  • 1  garlic clove, finely minced

Blanch broccoli in plenty boiling water for 5 min. Drain and sauté in 1 tablespoon olive oil and garlic for 1 min or until just fragrant. Season lightly.

Preheat oven at 200 °C (390 °F).

Combine meat, egg, milk, black pepper and salt with bread crumbs. Mix with your hands until the mixture is cohesive.

Butter generously a 1.2 lt (5 cups) terrine or loaf mold. Reserve about 1/4 of the meat and use the rest to fill the bottom and sides of the mould, making a 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick compact layer.  Line the ground-meat case with slices of guanciale (or pancetta) overlapping edges slightly and leaving a 2 cm (1 inch) overhang on the sides.

Note: in a classic French terrine the fat is used to line the mould. In this recipe the fat is used inside the meat case to give flavor to the filling.

Now fill all the rest of the space with broccoli and diced cheese. Press down the filling to avoid gaps. Cover the filling with the overhanging pancetta followed by the rest of the ground-meat. Brush the top layer of meat with a small amount of melted butter and bake uncovered for 40 min or until starting to become golden around the sides.

Cool off completely. Slice and serve as explained above.

Serves 4-6

PS. Please don’t ask me a sauce. If you must have tomatoes, serve the meatloaf with a mound of cherry tomatoes dressed in fruity olive oil piled over toasted crusty bread. Or over mashed potatoes. I promise you, it’s enough for a glorious meal.

the beautiful slices

the beautiful slices


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chunky Italian-style sweet orange marmalade

a beautiful display of oranges at Bastia Umbra Friday market, near Assisi

a beautiful display of citrus at Bastia Umbra Friday market, near Assisi

I have made a scientific study of making marmalade with sweet oranges. Bid deal – you will say – the whole world makes marmalade!

Indeed, but the “famous” British-style marmalade is made with bitter oranges.

However, there are no bitter oranges in rural Umbria. We grow no oranges at all actually, it’s too cold.

Try to ask an Umbrian greengrocer for bitter Seville oranges. He’ll think you are crazy. Then, with a bewildered look, he will proceed to offer you some fantastic Sicilian sweet oranges.

I also have a problem with marmalade making. It’s fussy. I make massive amounts of jams mostly based on the principle of chopping the fruit, adding sugar and pectin, boiling and voilà, all ready. This is a no go with oranges. The variation in  marmalade making methods is head spinning. Why?

The problem, my friends, is in the rind. Citrus rind is bitter, but it’s full of essential oils. The rind of lemons and of bitter oranges is particularly rich of lemonene, an oil which smells like oranges. That’s why it makes magic when added to food and marmalade.

Extract those oils in your marmalade and you will have captured the stupendous orange-yness of a perfect marmalade.

After much research and experiments I have adopted this is old recipe from Artusi’s The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well published in 1891. It’s still popular in Italy as it’s simple to make and the results are wonderful.

As a plus is based on my favorite chopping-everything-and-voilà-method. Almost :) .

I have slightly modified the proportion of ingredients and included explanations of the important steps.

Recipe

  • 10 large sweet oranges (I used about 2.5 kg /5.5 lb, organic, unwaxed Washington Navels)
  • 3 organic unwaxed lemons
  • sugar: same weight as oranges after soaking
  • water: 1/2 of the weight of oranges after soaking

Method:

1. Pierce oranges all around with the prongs of a fork. Alternatively score them lightly with a very sharp knife. Don’t pierce or score through the flesh or you will loose flavor.

Place oranges in a large bowl and cover with water. Place a plate on top of the oranges to keep them completely under water. Soak for 3 days changing the water twice a day. This will tenderize the oranges and dissolve the bitter taste of the zest as well as preserve  the essential oils which are insoluble in water.

Soak oranges in a large pot or bowl

Soaking the scored oranges in water. The plate has been removed for the picture.

2. on the 4th day, drain the oranges, quarter them and cut into chunks. This is a quite messy operations particularly if you like small chunks. I quartered the oranges and pulse-chopped 2 at a time in the food processor to obtain smaller pieces. Then I quickly transferred them into a bowl to avoid loosing precious orange juice all over the kitchen.

If you don’t mind bigger chunks just quarter the oranges and slice them 1 cm / half-inch thick. Try to collect all the juice dripping off the slices.

3. weigh the chopped fruit and juice – I will call this pulp –  transfer it in a tall pan and add water. For every kg/lb orange pulp you want to add half kg/lb water. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 10 min.

Always use a tall pan to make jam to protect yourself from hot splatter. Use low heat and a heavy bottomed pan so you won’t need to stir too often to prevent burning.

Don’t be tempted to reduce the amount of water. In fact, adding water increases the cooking time so the zest will be tender at the same time the marmalade is ready.

4. After 10 min add sugar. For every kg/lb orange pulp you want to add 1 kg/lb sugar. Bring to the boil again, then lower the heat and simmer very slowly stirring occasionally.

5. After 1 hour start working on the lemons. Making marmalade with chunks of rind involves caramelizing the rind before the jam gets too thick. You can’t really use pectin to make this jam as it will set too fast without cooking the rind.

Adding lemons will relatively increase the speed of setting because they contain pectin. In addition it brings out the flavor of the oranges and preserves the color of the marmalade.

Zest the lemons.  I grate the zest directly into the marmalade pan using a microplane. Remove the white part of the rind, then chop the flesh roughly and transfer it in the marmalade pan. Simmer for approximately another hour.

6. Cooking time of this marmalade will vary depending on size of oranges, level of heat and thickness of the pan.

To test if the marmalade is at setting point use the classic frozen dish method. When the mixture has thickened, place a small plate in the freezer for 5 minutes or until chilled. Drop 1/4 of a teaspoon marmalade on the frozen plate, the jam will cool instantly. Turn the plate sideways at 45°. If the jam is thick enough to set it will wrinkle up in little folds. If it is not yet thick enough then the jam will spread without having the top of the jam wrinkle. The thicker the wrinkles, the harder the jam will set.

If you are unsure, switch off the heat, cover and wait until the next day so it will cool off completely. If the marmalade looks good at room temperature  bring it back to the boil for at least 5 min. It will become liquid again. Pour into sterilize jars, top, and place upside down on a worktop until cool.

Let it rest for at least a month before using. It is gorgeous on toast but it’s so intense you can use it to flavor puddings, make a crostata or a sauce for pannacotta by mixing it with a little brandy and a sprinkle of dark chocolate curls.

Makes ten 0.5 kg/ 1 lb jars.

Chunky, aromatic, utterly orange-y Italian style marmamalde

Chunky, aromatic, utterly orange-y Italian style marmalade


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the chicken whisperer

view of my hometown Perugia from my parent's place (photo T. di Luca)

view of my hometown Perugia from my parents place (photo T. di Luca)

CHICKEN ALLA CACCIATORA a.k.a HUNTER STYLE or  CHICKEN CACCIATORE.

I spent my youth in a huge house overlooking my hometown Perugia. My parents where civil servants and in their free time took care of the large garden, the olive trees and the pets.

To be precise, my father took care of breeding the pets and my mother fought against the proliferation of pets. We had a dog and a cat and the occasional gold-fish of course. Even a guinea pig once.

That was fine with my mum.

The dog and the cat were actually treated to pasta al ragù just like us. Even with a sprinkle of Parmesan on top.

The problem was, my father had pet chickens. They were allowed to do anything they wanted. He talked to them.  They kept each other company. They – the chickens – ravaged the geraniums.

We never ate them. You don’t kill your pets do you? Occasionally he would deem one of the oldies suitable for a meal. They were so tough they were invariably only good for stock. For a roast or a stew like this one, she went to the market and bought a good freeranger from her favorite butcher.

And planted new geraniums.

Recipe

  • 1/2 free-ranging chicken cut into serving pieces
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, very finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon capers,
  • 4 tablespoon spoon good quality olives, not pitted
  • 1 sprig rosemary,
  • a handful sage leaves
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • zest of 1/4 lemon
  • juice of 1/4 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • extra virgin olive oil

Using a large thick bottom or non stick pan, sear chicken pieces in one tablespoon olive oil until golden on all sides. Good quality chicken should not produce any fat, but if it does drain it and wipe clean the pan before proceeding.

Turn heat to low, return chicken to the pan, add onion and stir frequently until caramelized.  Add minced garlic cloves, capers, olives, rosemary and sage leaves.

Please don’t use the inexpensive, pizza style, bland black olives. They are generally unripe green olives that have been dyed with iron salts (ferrous gluconate) after artificial ripening.

Season with just a sprinkle of salt and black pepper.

When everything is fragrant add one cup of wine, cover and simmer very slowly until the chicken is tender. This might take 45 min to 1 and 1/2 hours depending on size and quality of the bird. Add some water if the sauce gets too dry while simmering.

When ready to serve add the lemon juice and zest and balsamic vinegar. Taste and add more lemon if desired as it brings out the flavor of all other ingredients.

This dish is lovely with a side of steamed greens dressed with a fruity extra virgin and a splash of lemon juice if you like. If you need your starch, accompany it with homemade potato puree or polenta. Italians would never serve it on pasta or rice.

Serves 3-4 depending on initial size of chicken.

 

add the wine at this stage, when all other ingredients are fragrant

add the wine at this stage, when all other ingredients are fragrant

 

This recipe is submitted to the #TuscanyNowCookOff  competition

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