Recipe: Chicken Braised with Red Wine, Shiitakes, and Juniper Berries
There comes a point each winter, usually in late winter, when I get sick of smelling canned tomatoes. I love them around Christmastime. and they continue to be a gift in the coming cold months, but after I’ve been trapped with them in my kitchen for too long, something about that tinny smell when I open the can, even with really good San Marzano plums, starts to remind me of cafeteria food. That’s when I turn to wine and broth for my sole braisings liquids.
Here’s a version of chicken alla cacciatore, without tomatoes (not so unusual even in Campania), flavored with rosemary (very typical of Campania), and made rich with pancetta, mushrooms, red wine, and home-made chicken stock. There are no sharp edges here. I resisted capers, lemon zest, olives, and other jolting ingredients from my usual Southern Italian bag of tricks. I went easy on the garlic, substituting a mellow, lightly caramelized soffrito of onion and carrot, a sweet touch, and adding juniper berries, a good partner for rosemary, both being piny-tasting elements..
I make this with chicken thighs only, the best part, juicy, tender, really hard to dry out unless you blast them with excessive high heat. I have removed the skin, though not for dietary reasons but simply because even after you brown the skin well, once you get on with the simmering in liquid, the skin will become flabby again and unappealing. So now I flour the skinless thighs, avoiding that problem.
Think making chicken stock is hard? Think again. Do you routinely or even occasionally pick up a preroasted chicken at a supermarket? Keep all the bones (best with snippets of meat and skin still attached), chopping up the carcass into large parts. Put this in a pot with a broken up carrot, a celery stalk if you’ve got one, a piece of an onion or leek, and a few parsley stems. Sauté all this in a little olive oil for a minute or so, then cover the chicken with water. Bring to a boil. Turn down the flame and let it simmer for an hour. Season with a little salt, if you like. Strain and freeze. Very handy. If your takeout chicken has an unpleasant dried herb flavor (many of them are covered with dried rosemary or a mix of stale old herbs), give any remaining skin areas a rinse before sautéing.
And for your viewing pleasure, “The Italian Chicken Dance”.
Chicken Braised with Red Wine, Shiitakes, and Juniper Berries
Freshly ground black pepper
8 chicken thighs, skinned
½ cup all-purpose flour
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound chunk pancetta, cut into small cubes
1 small onion, cut into small dice
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
3 juniper berries, crushed
4 allspice, ground to a powder
4 sprigs rosemary, the leaves chopped
1 glass dry red wine
1 glass good chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
A large handful of shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, small ones left whole, bigger ones cut in half
A splash of grappa
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
Dry off the chicken thighs, and season them with salt and black pepper. Coat them lightly with flour.
In a large skillet, heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the chicken, and brown it well on both sides. Take the chicken from the skillet.
Now add the pancetta, and let it crisp up. Add the onion and carrot, and sauté until they’re softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, juniper berries, allspice, and rosemary, and sauté a minute to release their fragrances. Add the red wine, and let it reduce by half. Add the chicken broth, and bring to a boil.
Put the chicken back in the skillet, turn the heat down, and braise gently, partially covered, until the chicken is just tender, about 20 minutes.
In a small skillet, heat the butter over medium-high flame. Add the mushrooms, seasoning them with a little salt and pepper, and sauté until they’re soft and starting to give off a bit of liquid. Add the grappa, and let it burn off (careful of the flames there). Add the mushrooms, along with any skillet juices, to the chicken, and simmer a minute to blend the flavors. Skim the top of fat if necessary.
Pull the chicken from the skillet, and arrange it on a warmed serving platter. If the sauce seems loose, reduce it over high heat for a minute or so, or if you feel it’s cooked down too much, add a bit more chicken broth. Check for seasoning, pour the sauce on top, and scatter on the parsley.
This is really nice served with polenta.