the chicken whisperer

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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

no-cook pasta sauce with tuna and cherry tomatoes

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strozzapreti pasta with tuna, cherry tomatoes, olives

This pasta is good for:

  • when there is no time to make dinner but you still want real food
  • the pantry is empty (or almost)
  • it’s Monday
  • you are on low cal
  • before leaving for holidays
  • returning from holidays
  • unexpected informal dinner guests
  • whenever

This pasta has a sad version and a happy version. To make the happy version you must:

  • always have some bronze-drawn durum wheat pasta or frozen fresh pasta and really good extra-virgin olive oil
  • use high quality tuna packed in oil, even better if it’s in olive oil (I use Rio Mare)

Neglecting all the above will result in the sad version. Keeping a bunch of cherry tomatoes in your freezer is a life saver.

Recipe

  • one 200 gr (6 1/2 ounce) can imported Italian tuna in olive oil, drained and separated into chunks
  • 2 cloves garlic, very finely minced
  • 250 gr (1/2 lb) cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 300 gr/ 10 ounces spaghetti
  • a pinch sugar, salt

Optional:

  • 100 gr (3.5 oz) pitted and chopped Kalamata olives
  • 1 tablespoon capers preserved in salt, washed and drained
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • 1 fresh chili pepper

Using a shallow pan – a frying pan with high sides is ideal – saute the garlic in 2 tablespoon olive oil over very low heat. Do not brown the garlic, you only want to flavor the oil. Add the tuna chunks and stir until just warm. Add olives and/or capers if using. Increase heat, add tomatoes and saute quickly until they are only warmed through. They should not cook and lose their shape. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar, add chili pepper if using and turn off the heat. The whole preparation should not take more than 5 min.

Meanwhile cook the pasta according to package instructions, or 1-2 min if using fresh pasta. The sauce is light and relatively dry, so it is suitable for spaghetti or short pasta shapes like the strozzapreti I used for the photo. It does not work well with fettuccine and the like.

When the pasta is cooked, turn the heat under the sauce pan to high. Drain and transfer to the sauce pan.  Stir the pasta quickly into the sauce as explained here. Add some pasta water – up to one tablespoon per person – and stir some more until the excess liquid is absorbed. Sprinkle with parsley and drizzle with fruity extra virgin olive oil. Serve on warm plates at once.

Serves 2-3

pasta alla puttanesca

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tortiglioni alla puttanesca

PUTTANESCA aka THE WHORE’S SAUCE. With a name like this you can only expect something spectacular. There are several metropolitan legends that try to explain the peculiar name. The one that makes more sense to me refers to prostitutes not having time or opportunity to shop and therefore making a quick sauce with ingredients available in the larder.

And ingredients are the key to the excitement. Good bronze drawn pasta, sun ripen tomatoes, tiny capers preserved in salt, anchovies packed in olive oil, sweet, firm, flavorful olives, fruity extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic and parsley.

If you don’t have all the above please don’t be tempted to add cheese, tuna fish, mushrooms, roasted peppers, pancetta or other oddities. A good recipe is like a play, if one actor doesn’t know his part you can’t rescue it by having one someone who has learned a different role.

Recipe

  • 1 pound (500 grams) dried pasta
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon capers, soaked in water and drained
  • 5 oz (150 gr) Kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 1 small dried red chile
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 (14 ounce/400gram) cans diced/crushed tomatoes
  • 1 good handful fresh parsley finely chopped

The recipe is traditionally made with spaghetti and olives from Gaeta. Short pasta like penne or the beautiful tortiglioni in the picture is easy if you need to feed a crowd. Gaeta olives are probably not common outside Italy but Kalamata are a good substitute.

The inexpensive, pizza style, ubiquitously bland black olives are generally unripe green olives that have been dyed with iron salts (ferrous gluconate) after artificial ripening. Avoid.

Saute the garlic, capers, olives, anchovies, chili in 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil for a couple of minutes. Mash the anchovies with the back of a wooden spoon and when they disappear add the tomatoes, cover and simmer for 10 min until slightly thickened.

If you are not fond of chili pepper you can omit it and serve some of my spicy oil to those who do.

Cook the pasta in plenty salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and transfer the pasta in the hot sauce. Stir quickly, add the fresh parsley and serve.

Serve 6

Spaghetti alla puttanesca

olive harvest

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Ours is a small farm, we have 11 hectares land, about 27 acres. This year we have taken advantage of the last sunny days of the season to harvest olives from our 250  trees. We like to harvest early, between the end of October and the beginning of November, when olives are just turning from green to purple. At this stage olives are rich of oil and aromatic compounds.

The oil will be fruity and peppery with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Umbrian oil at its best.

olives for olive oil are best harvested when turning from green to purple

beautiful olives, perfect stage for harvest

Potentially we could produce some 3500 kg/7700 pounds olives. However, most of our olive trees are very young so  we presently  make only a fraction of that. We pick olives by hand, using small rakes and nets.

the slow work of harvesting olives

it's a slow work

We try to pick fast as olives should not be stored too long before processing. However, it takes at least an hour to harvest a tree like that one in this picture below. All for 2-3 bottles oil per mature tree, yeld is 15%.

harvesting from one of our mature trees

harvesting from one of our mature trees

As our fields are on a fairly steep hill, with all the climbing up and down and carting stuff back to the house at the end of the harvest we are dead tired. Luckily this year we had an energetic helper.

our dog google, not only she does not find truffles, she not even very good at harvesting olives!

Google, our only farm animal

Just like us, she can’t wait to get to the mill and see the results of our efforts.