After a truly magnificent Summer, the sweltering heatwave has subsided into a beautifully balmy Autumn, bringing with it an array of amber & ruby rouge coloured leaves in the garden. Sultry Autumnal evenings require soothing, slow-cooked, substantial suppers full of rich colour too. Working long hours or shifts, whatever your line of work or study, can have a knock-on effect when it comes to preparing a hearty, satisfying evening meal. As the nights start to draw in, we begin to crave richer & robust fayre to comfort us in the cooler evenings ahead.
Preparing meals in advance is a definite must for the cooler seasons, so with a little planning you can have a tantrum-free tea-time without a fuss & feel good about feeding a wholesome, homemade meal to your family. Not everyone has the luxury of a couple of spare hours in the day to prepare food & sometimes it can all seem a bit too much, so ready meals become a regular option. It’s easy to come home, flop into an armchair & dial up a delivery dinner, but it’s not a good idea every night. When I worked in an office, I would prepare food at every opportunity I had – the night before, in the morning, the weekends, even during my lunchbreak on occasion! It just needs a little organising & teamwork – I have help from my fabulous assistants (aka Husband & Son). Whole chickens are boned & filleted, before being turned into simple suppers & frozen in readiness for rewarding after-work dinners. Vegetables are sliced & chopped (my little food processor is an absolute treasure for this!), then popped into pans of water or stored in the fridge for when you just need a handful of veg. Pots of stock can defrost on a cooling rack, waiting to be whipped up into a rich, rib-sticking risotto, topped with a couple of roasted, crispy chicken legs. One of the best things about a risotto is there’s always enough left to make arancini for lunch the next day too, which means you’ve already covered meals for two days & there’s no waste!
Pollo alla Cacciatore is one of our favourite Autumnal dinners & it’s really easy to cook too. The name cacciatore means “hunter” (so does chasseur in French too), & this dish is cooked or prepared in the hunter’s style. Apparently, it was usual for the hunters to cook the meat, whether it was chicken, rabbit, boar or whatever they had, adding some slices of speck (a type of cured pork) or pancetta to the pan, along with a few foraged mushrooms & herbs. Some would add wine (depending on the region, it would be red or white), some would add tomatoes & maybe a few carrots, then everything would simmer slowly in a steamy cooking pot. Obviously, there are a few different recipes out there, as everyone has their own version & it’s down to personal choice.
My recipe is one I’ve been cooking for over 30 years (in my kitchen, I might add, not the woods!) & is always warmly welcomed on chilly evenings. All it takes is a few minutes to prepare & an hour to slowly stew in the oven, so all the meat falls off the bone & the flavours infuse into the sumptuous sauce. You can buy ready prepared chicken portions if you prefer & use whichever cut you enjoy. Chicken legs & thighs are perfect for this recipe as they are much more flavoursome, especially when they’re cooked on the bone. These portions of meat tend to be overlooked & so often wasted, yet they are a much cheaper, just as tasty alternative to chicken breast. If you do use chicken breast, you will need to reduce the cooking time as they cook quicker & the meat can go stringy (don’t worry, I’ll remind you later on in the recipe).
Two things I will recommend are: (1) get yourself some good tongs for cooking the chicken (trying to manoeuvre slippery chicken portions in a hot pan with a spatula is a bit tricky!). (2) If you do add wine, only use the stuff you would drink – don’t use cheap plonk, it will make your dish taste cheap (there’s no wine in my recipe, however you can add a small glass of red wine with the tomatoes if you wish). Those dinky two-glass mini bottles are brilliant for these types of recipes.
My recipe feeds four hungry people, but you can halve it if it’s just two of you dining (I regularly do this if I’ve got a couple of spare chicken legs). Ready to prep your pollo? Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!
What you need:
4 Chicken Legs or 6-8 Thighs (skin on & bone in) or 4 Chicken Breasts (skin on, halved)
4-6 rashers Smoked Streaky Bacon (freeze the rest in 4 rasher batches, so you always have some when you need it)
2 tins Italian Plum Tomatoes, crushed by hand in a bowl (get your hands in, you’ll wash!)
Half a tube of Tomato Puree
6-8 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely or crushed
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (at least 2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons Dried Oregano
Half a dozen fresh Basil leaves, chopped roughly (or 2 teaspoons Dried Basil)
1 or 2 teaspoons Sugar (this is to soften the acidity in the tomatoes)
1 large Red Onion, topped, tailed & chopped chunky
1 each large Red & Green Peppers, deseeded & chopped chunky
1 punnet Mushrooms, wiped with a damp cloth & quartered, or left whole if small
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to taste
What to do:
Preheat the oven to 180*C & get yourself a large, lidded casserole dish big enough to take your chicken & the sauce (there is always more sauce than you think & you don’t want it overflowing!). Sometimes I use two dishes & then leave one untouched for freezing.
Prepare the onion & vegetables, chop the garlic & set aside.
Prepare your chicken (if you’re doing it yourself, please have a look at my blog here: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-ten-in-a-dish/). Trim off any excess skin on the underside of the legs (use kitchen scissors to save yourself any stress of chasing a raw chicken around a chopping board).
Do NOT wash the chicken – the heat will kill any bacteria, plus it’s going in a hot pan & believe me, cold water & hot oil do not mix! Do wash your hands well though.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan, then fry the chicken portions skin side down for about a minute. Add the bacon & fry this alongside the chicken.
Turn over the chicken portions once they begin to brown & fry the underside for another minute – for chicken breasts, ensure all the sides are sealed & there are no pink bits. If you’re pan isn’t hot enough or your chicken portions are big, it might take a couple of minutes each side. You just want to seal the meat here, not cook it through.
Once browned, transfer the chicken & bacon to a large casserole dish. Using scissors, snip the bacon into pieces & scatter over the chicken, then put the lid on.
Strain off any excess fat, leaving just a little of the cooking oil & juices in the pan (add a little drizzle of oil if you think you need it).
Add the chopped onion, vegetables, mushrooms & garlic to the pan, stir frying for a couple of minutes to soften slightly.
Add the tomatoes, their juice & the puree. Give everything a good stir & then add the herbs, mixing well. Simmer for a couple of minutes.
Season to taste with the sugar, salt & black pepper (the sugar simply softens the acidic taste of the tomatoes, so you only need a little).
Remove the lid from your casserole dish & pour the sauce all over the chicken portions.
Put the lid back on & cook in the oven for about 30-40 minutes for chicken breast, or 45 minutes to an hour for legs or thighs (I usually leave it in for an hour).
To test if it’s cooked, pierce the thickest part of the meat with a metal skewer or sharp knife. If the juices run clear & the meat is white inside, it’s cooked.
Put the lid back on & leave the dish on a wire rack or trivet for about 25 minutes or so. Once rested, the meat will literally fall off the bone & be easy to pull apart if you want to remove the bones (please remove them if serving to young children).
Usually, while it’s resting, I’ll pop some dinky jacket potatoes on metal skewers in the oven. By the time they’re done, the chicken will have rested sufficiently & you can dish up!
Serve hearty, heaping spoonfuls of this rich, ruby red chicken casserole into large pasta bowls or deep plates. Add a few of the mini-jacket potatoes on the side, crushed up with puddles of butter & dusted with a bit of freshly grated Parmesan. This goes very well with freshly baked, warm focaccia – just dunk chunks in the sauce to mop up all that goodness.
This recipe is brilliant for freezing, just spoon leftovers into individual pots or bags & freeze (lay an open freezer bag in a bowl, then fill & seal – it won’t move around & spill sauce all over if you do it this way). Defrost & warm through when you fancy something warming (great for those evenings when you know you’re going to need a speedy supper!). Any leftover sauce is really versatile too! Simply freeze in single portion pots & use as much or as little as you need. It’s lovely ladled onto well-buttered jacket potatoes, poured over a pile of papparadelle, or even just heated up & eaten as a chunky soup with fresh crusty bread! I’ve even made a lasagne with it, layering between thin sheets of pasta & creamy cheese sauce.
When the evenings start to get chilly & you’ve had a long day, don’t reach for the ready meals – put the Pollo alla Cacciatore on & you’ll all have tea ready in no time! Stay hungry! A 😉 x