I love recipes that combine meat (or fish) with vegetables. In Italian cooking terms, it combines secondo and contorno in a single dish, and if you serve the dish with some good bread, it becomes a one-pot meal, especially appreciated after the holidays when many of us are probably “cooked out”.
Chicken, with its mild taste, lends itself to almost endless pairings. One that I particularly like in the cold weather months is chicken and mushrooms. I found this recipe in a wonderful, under-appreciated 1978 cookbook entitled The Cuisine of Venice and Surrounding Northern Regions by Hedy Giusti-Lanham and Andrea Dodi. It is, sadly, out of print but can be bought used on amazon.com.
This dish is typical of the spezzatino, a kind of stew. The name comes from the verb spezzare, which means to break (or in this case, cut) into pieces, which is want you want to do with whatever meat you are using. Smaller is better, as this not only speeds the cooking process but ensures that each piece of meat is impregnated with the flavor of the sauce. For most spezzatini, you typically add just a splash of wine, which you let evaporate over high heat as you turn the pieces to coat them, before covering the dish and simmering it to completion over very low heat, adding just a bit of liquid as it cooks if needed to keep things moist. In this dish, however, you add a generous amount of white wine in which you braise the chicken, more in the French style. The wine, slightly thickened from the dusting of flour on the chicken pieces, then becomes your sauce.
- 1 young chicken, cut into 10 pieces (see Notes)
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
- 1 sprig of fresh rosemary
- 250-350g (8-12 oz.) of fresh mushrooms (or a handful of dried imported mushrooms, soaked until soft)
- 250 ml (1 cup) dry white wine
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Flour for dusting the chicken pieces
- Minced parsley (optional)
In a large sauté pan or braiser large enough to hold your chicken pieces in a single layer, sauté the garlic and rosemary gently in the olive oil until the garlic is lightly browned. Remove both garlic and rosemary from the pan.
Pat the chicken pieces dry with paper towels, dust them ever so lightly in flour and add them to the oil, raising the heat a bit. Brown the pieces on all sides, turning them from time to time for even cooking. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Add a generous amount of white wine, enough to come up about 1 cm (1/4 inch) up the pan. Turn the chicken pieces in the wine for a minute or two so they are covered well, then lower the heat and cover. Let the chicken simmer gently until it is cooked through and tender. For a young chicken, this should take about 30 minutes. For older or larger chicken the cooking time may be upwards of 45 minutes to an hour.
About halfway through the cooking time add your mushrooms. If you are using reconstituted dried mushrooms or very tender fresh ones, you can simply cut them up roughly and add them raw (see Notes). (If using dried mushrooms, add their water, too, as it has lots of flavor.) Then re-cover the pan and continue simmering until the chicken is done through.
When the chicken is done, uncover and remove the chicken pieces to a warm serving platter. Check the consistency of the sauce. If it is a bit watery, raise the heat and let it reduce a bit. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Then nap your chicken with the mushrooms and sauce. Top with a bit of minced parsley, if you like, for color
Serve immediately, while still hot, with some nice, crusty bread and a crisp white wine. (Giusti-Lanham and Dodi recommend a Durello or Pinot Grigio.)
For a simple recipe like this, the quality of the ingredients will matter a lot. Use an organic chicken, which tends to have better flavor and texture. And to make sure the chicken absorbs the flavor of the sauce, cut it up into 10 pieces: 2 wings, 2 legs, 2 thighs and 4 breast pieces, which you get by cutting each breast in half crosswise. (For birds with ‘swollen’ breasts, typical of modern ‘industrial’ birds) you may even want to cut them into thirds.) To ensure proper browning, it is very important to dry each piece thoroughly before flouring them and frying them.
The original recipe calls for using reconstituted dried mushrooms soaked for a good half hour or more in water. Remember the cookbook is from the 70s when the only fresh mushrooms available in US stores where the rather bland ‘button’ mushrooms. We are lucky nowadays to have a variety of mushrooms to choose from. For this dish, I often use one of those packages of mixed, already cut up mushrooms. If you are using tender-fleshed mushrooms like shiitake or oysters, you can be add them directly to the pan without preliminaries. If you are using firm-fleshed mushrooms, however, like those old-fashioned ‘button’ mushrooms or Bellas, you’ll want to slice them and sauté them in olive oil before adding them to the simmering chicken, or they will have an unpleasantly tough and spongy texture.