Sometimes I wonder how it all went so horribly wrong. When I was growing up chicken was something that we had only on very special occasions - my birthday, my brother's birthday, Christmas and Easter. I can't remember if we also had it on Mum's and Dad's birthdays - maybe not - as only parents can, it's entirely possible that Mum and Dad went without so Geoff and I could have a real treat on our birthdays.
You see back then chicken was something of a luxury - I guess that was before someone discovered that if they did horrible, unmentionable things to chickens (instead of letting them run around naturally, and grow at a normal pace), they could churn them out by the thousands, thus making them incredibly cheap and we could afford to dine on them every night of the week. Somewhere along the way, we turned into such an "I want it, and I want it now" kind of society, driven by greed rather than need, that it became okay to eat chicken five nights a week regardless of the consequences. Yes, the price on that Gladwrapped packet at the supermarket is cheap, but it doesn't reflect the many other environmental and social costs that you are paying in other ways and don't even notice.
Now I could turn this into a whole post about the virtues of organic, free-range chicken, but ... enough said for now, you can obviously tell where I'm coming from on this subject. That was a little bit of a digression, so back to the point, which was about chicken being something special and reserved for celebratory meals.
Roast chicken was always my birthday treat - it was my stand-out, altogether, most favourite meal and I used to look forward to it all year (along with the cherry cake that Mum also always made for my birthday). Then, one year I sat down to the dinner table on the evening of my birthday, quivering with anticipation, when ... horror of horrors ... I was presented with some kind of chicken casserole. I thought my whole world had come to an end - instead of the burnished, golden, crispy-skinned bird I expected to see before me, I witnessed pale, shredded up bits of chicken, floating around with carrots and onions (blech - two least favourite things in the world at that age) in a pale, insipid, creamy white sauce (blech again!). To this day, I have no idea what possessed my mother, since she knew I hated anything stew or casserole-like, especially anything with carrots and onions in it, and she also knew that plain roast chicken was my favourite meal. What an earth she was thinking goodness knows, but she had obviously discovered a new recipe somewhere and thought she was making a special treat. Of course, with all the cruelty and heartlessness that only a child can muster, I remember having a complete tantrum and telling my mother that she had completely ruined my birthday, and "it was the worst birthday of my whole life"!! A cook myself, now, I can reflect on how horribly hurtful my lack of gratitude must have been after she had spent several hours slaving away in the kitchen.
No doubt, Mum forgave me (as mothers do), and to her credit she did deliver on the cherry cake, but the memory of that chicken casserole has lived on. I had a vague recollection that she called it French Chicken Fricassee. Even though the palate of that ungrateful little wretch has matured considerably over the years, I can tell you that I was still less than enthusiastic about our assignment for the Cooking Italy group this week, which just happened to be Chicken Fricassee.
As you know, we are cooking from Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking". On looking up the recipe, which incidentally happens to be on page 332 if you have the book, I was relieved to discover no creamy, white sauce, no onions and no carrots - instead I find chicken pieces which are firstly lightly browned and then simmered with porcini mushrooms, tomatoes and white wine. Perhaps I could like this version of Chicken Fricassee after all.
I made a few minor changes to the recipe - firstly, Marcella suggests cutting a chicken into four pieces and cooking the whole dish in a large skillet. Well, I don't have a skillet big enough for that, so I cut my chicken into smaller pieces (8 pieces actually), and after browning the chicken pieces I actually cooked the whole dish in a large deep pan (more like a Dutch oven). The other small change I made was that the recipe called for 1/4 cup of tinned tomatoes, chopped, and their juice - I'm sorry, but I'm not measuring out a 1/4 cup of chopped tomatoes for anyone - if I'm opening the tin, the whole lot is going in. So, I probably ended up with rather more liquid than the original recipe intended, but what's wrong with a bit of extra sauce?!
My final verdict on this one - personally, I found it a little bit bland. Whilst the porcini mushrooms had nice flavour, I did find them a little bit chewy - maybe that would be different if you had access to fresh porcini as opposed to dried ones. My partner, on the other hand, loved this dish, and I can imagine it would be a great dish to serve on an occasion when you might not be entirely sure of your guests' tastes, or to feed those who don't have particularly adventurous palates. In short there is nothing in this dish that is going to offend anyone. To suit my own tastes, I think that next time I would put a bit of garlic and some fresh herbs in here to boost the flavour a bit; a bit of pancetta might not go astray; and I think that I would use a smaller quantity of porcini (enough to give a hint of flavour), but pad it out with some fresh mushrooms which I think will give better texture.
Chicken Fricassee with Porcini Mushrooms, White Wine & Tomatoes
Adapted from Marcella Hazan's
Click here for a printable copy of this recipe
1.5kg (3 lb) free-range chicken, cut into 8 pieces
(alternatively 8 bone-in chicken thighs would be great)
2 tablespoons olive oil
flaky sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
30g (1 oz) dried porcini
2 cups barely warm water
400g (15 oz) tin Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
1 tablespoon butter
Firstly soak the dried porcini in the warm water to rehydrate for at least 30 minutes.
Remove the porcini from the water, squeezing out as much water as you can, and set the porcini aside. Strain the soaking liquid through a sieve, lined with a paper towel, into a clean bowl and reserve.
Put oil in a skillet over medium high heat, and once the oil is hot add chicken pieces to the pan, skin side down. Brown well, then turn over and brown the other side. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. You will probably need to do this in batches.
Once all the chicken pieces have been browned, add the wine to the pan to deglaze. Allow it to bubble briskly for about 30 seconds, all the while using a wooden spatula to loosen all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
Now add the porcini mushrooms, the reserved soaking liquid, the chopped tomatoes and their juice. Bring to a boil, return the chicken pieces to the pan, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Partially cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and continue to simmer for 40-50 minutes until the chicken is very tender. Turn the pieces of chicken occasionally during that time.
Once cooked, remove the chicken pieces from the pan and transfer to a serving platter. Tilt the pan and skim off as much of the fat as you can. If the pan juices are very thin, turn the heat up to high and boil to reduce. Then swirl the butter into the pan juices, keep stirring until emulsified, and then pour the entire contents of the pan over the chicken. Serve immediately.
I served this with rice and a salad, but it would be equally good with polenta or pasta.
Do visit my Cooking Italy page to learn more about the group (maybe you'd even like to join in - you don't have to have a blog to join the group and cook along with everyone else), find links to other members of the group, and links to all the Cooking Italy recipes I've cooked so far.
I'm also submitting this post to Cookbook Sundays, hosted by the lovely Brenda at Brenda's Canadian Kitchen. She's worth a visit any day of the week, but why not head over there right now and see who else has dusted off their cookbooks - you'll almost certainly find some great recipes, and maybe you'll discover a new book you'd like to add to your collection.