Saturday, May 16, 2009

Roman Chicken Quandry or Pollo con Pepperoni alla Romana and a little about onions.

I desperately wanted to show this guy climbing into a stainless steel hot tub, but John was making pasta in the only pan that would work.  So, maybe later.

The first time I went to Rome in 1971. I stayed at the Villa delle Rose. I remember it the way it was at the time. It was plain but clean and very close to Termimi Station. As one stepped off the street into the courtyard to the right of the building; each side of the courtyard was planted along the wall with flowers.(Perhaps Tuberous Begonias and Oleander bushes?) Just inside the gate was a fountain in the corner. The back of the courtyard was raised slightly and had a lattice roof hanging with grapes and flowers. I asked for chicken with peppers. I did not know then that this was something of an Icon of Roman cooking; but whatever it was; I loved it. I suppose it reminded me of some of the things I remembered from home. I had been nervous about food in a foreign country. I don't know what I expected. Having grown up in a household filled with Italian cooking and culture I should have had a better idea. (I have to admit that I felt a bit like an outsider growing up in an Irish/Canadian/French county like Aroostook in Maine.) But, I probably thought I would order things that were mainly organ meat by accident, and that frightened the hell out of me.
Anyway, the waiter asked me what kind of wine I wanted. I asked for a Chianti....he was plainly horrified, and asked if I really wanted it with chicken. I stood my ground; not wanting to appear weak I suppose. The chicken arrived stewed, with red and yellow peppers with the skins on, and it was absolutely delicious.
After the meal, and way too much red wine,(these days they don't really care what wine you order except in very high end establishments, but this was long before the liberation of the late 70s and 80s when we were told to drink what tasted best with the food, not what was proscribed by tradition.)
I chose peaches as my dessert. They were probably hoping that I would just go away, but were also disappointed that I did not order five courses. I did not know that I could have saved my wine for the next day. I drank far too much in an effort to use what I ordered without wasting it.
The waiter dropped the peaches, huge and luscious, but not over ripe, into a wire basket that had a petalled wire top to close over it. He swung it by his side as he walked to the fountain in the corner, and dunked the peaches in the water. Then, he hung the basket by the wire handles under the spout. After it had rinsed there a couple of minutes, he walked back with it and placed the peaches on a plate in front of me, still trickling with the cold water, as the rest of it beaded up on the fuzz of the skin. It was cold as ice on the surface, but the middle of the peaches were still warm from hanging in the sunshine that afternoon. I think there was something akin to Moscarpone to go with it. I ignored it, probably to the waiter's horror.
I did not think till this very minute, what kind of risk I was taking by eating what had just been dunked in Roman water! These days it is not an issue, but at the time, I had no interest in spending my vacation in a bathroom.

Years later, the hotel had changed. The courtyard was gone and cars were parked where I had eaten my first Italian meal in Rome. The hotel itself was fairly glitzy compared to the way it was then. When I mentioned that I had stayed there when I was 18, years earlier, a man just a few years older than I stepped forward and said that he had worked there at that time. He offered to give us a little tour. The tour ended on the roof which looked out over the rooftops of Rome. He said that they often rented the little room on the roof to family members and staff when the hotel was busy. By the following night, we had rented the tiny rooftop room with two vast terraces; whose parapets sported terracotta window-boxes filled with succulents. A lovely place despite the changes and lovely people running it.

The next time I had Roman Chicken, was years later. Perhaps it was the same trip as my return stay at the hotel.
We had just walked through the Parco Caffarella which is just outside the San Sebastiano Gate of Rome. It is just down the Via Appia Antica. When we got back out to the Via Appia, we emerged far south of the entrance, but about half way between the gates of the city and the Tomb of Cecelia Metella(Please excuse the spelling). On our right, after a few minutes walk along the Via in terrible traffic,(there are no sidewalks) we came upon a sign which said Cafe Pompeii. John is always up for a meal, and every restaurant we come to usually gets checked out. This one was up a long drive off the Via Appia that rose high above the level of the road. At the top was a long low building with a pergola across the front. It had a view of the tomb across the fields. Inside was a plain but very pleasant restaurant, that during warmer months would probably be more likely to serve under the pergola. We had a rather Sicilian/Neapolitan style Tavola Freddo, with all sorts of cold(room temperature)grilled and marinated veggies. Then came the Chicken with Peppers Roman Style.
This was something of a surprise to me. It was great, but very different from my first experience. This one was all red peppers, stewed in a little covered casserole. The peppers were in rather large pieces, and had been roasted and skinned. A few years earlier, I had gotten into the habit of cooking small portions in tiny covered casseroles, so I guess this really appealed to me.

So which was the real Roman Chicken?

I decided, for some reason, to find out today. I looked on line for the recipes. I found that Giada Di Laurentis was touting it with prosciutto, white wine, and capers...sounds good,(actually it sounds great) but I do not know if that is what I want to call Roman Chicken(Roman food is pretty simple and very unpretentious, which kind of rules out the entire idea of Prosciutto)...then I found some recipes that echoed Giada, some that used canned this and thats, Pancetta(a more likely addition in Roman food) one with diced canned tomatoes(HORRORS!!!!), one with rice...even a gluten free version...(God knows where you might find this recipe WITH gluten)...heavens are we a weird society!

So, I have decided to go back to my past and give you the recipes from years ago when I was just trying to imitate what I remembered.

I used to live in a house in Freeport after my sister moved out of town.(Probably to get away from me) I worked at Springers' Jewelers. I would have my non-cooking friend and fellow clerk Tim Quinn join me for meals.

I started by boiling water and plunging a large tomato into it for a few seconds till the skin cracked. Then I would plunge it into a bath of cold water. The skin would loosen, and I would peel it, quarter it, and get rid of the seeds. Who the hell wants canned, diced cubed tomatoes with calcium citrate!?!?

Cut up a few skinless, boneless chicken breasts into large chunks, and brown them in olive oil. While they are browning, chop a red and a yellow pepper into coarse chunks or strips as you prefer. Also chop one medium onion onto very large dice. Crush two cloves of garlic.

Drop the vegetables into the pan with the half cooked chicken. Crush the tomato through your fingers over the nearly cooked mixture, along with a small amount of oregano, salt and pepper to taste.

Cover the pan tightly and lower the temperature. Allow to simmer gently till the tomato has collapsed completely, and the peppers are soft. Add broth if it becomes too dry. Turn the chicken over frequently so the collapsing peppers coat the chicken.

Serve the chicken with a few strips of the pepper, and toss the sauce and the rest of the peppers onto vermicelli. Pecorino Romano would be good on the pasta, but not Parmesan if we are talking Roman.

These sweet dishes sometimes benefit from a splash of vinegar at the end...only the best red wine please...Italians love sweet and sour, but do not overdo it.

The other version.....

Broil or grill over an open flame, two red peppers. You could add green and yellow, but the green ones have a very different taste.
When the skin is mostly black, drop them into a covered Tupperware container or bowl with a plate to cover. Let sit while the rest of the recipe progresses. Skin and seed them by hand when you can handle them. Save the juices for the pan.
Cut up a small chicken. The Italians do not use the Pterodactyl chickens that we do, except for long stewing. For that matter it is rare to see large cuts of any meat on an Italian table.

Dry then salt and pepper the chicken pieces(make sure you cut the breasts in two). There should be ten pieces.  Bones always add great flavor to any chicken dish!  Brown the pieces on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside in a shallow bowl.(You may chop up a couple of generous slices of Pancetta, and fry it in the drippings here, and remove from the pan with the chicken, but this is very definitely optional) Slice a large red onion into large slivers, and saute them in the oil and chicken fat(This is not for the slim conscious, but the flavor is great.). Add a couple of cloves of crushed garlic for the last couple of minutes of the saute time. Crush in a couple of tomatoes, prepared as in the first recipe or out of a out for that calcium citrate...this is not usually in whole canned tomatoes.
Meanwhile, cut the peppers into large strips. Return all the ingredients and their juices to the pan. Add a bit of oregano. Add a bit of broth if it is dry. Many recipes also add half or a full cup of white wine(sometimes even red), but do not make this overly juicy.  If they are to be truly stewed chicken pieces or braised...there should be a generous amount of liquid in the pan either at the beginning or not long after the cooking process begins.  You want it stewed, not roasted. Cover the pan, or if you are lucky, an earthenware casserole, and place it in a very low oven to bake for at least half an hour or up to an hour.(You may place it on top of the stove if you like, but watch the heat to avoid scorching. There is a lot of sugar in the peppers, so it will scorch easily.) Do not let them stay long enough to completely disintegrate the peppers. Check them regularly and remove them if they are getting too mushy. It is fine if some of the flesh of the peppers start to coat the chicken a bit, but you should recognize them as peppers when you serve them and not break apart completely when they are mixed into the pasta.

Remove and hold the chicken pieces till after the pasta course and then serve them with a few strips of pepper and maybe a chunk of bread.

Meanwhile, drop cooked Vermicelli or perhaps Buccatini into the sauces in the pan and serve it with Pecorino Romano and family style.

This would not be the same recipe at all, but how about doing this with chunks of sausage instead of the pancetta!?!?

Since we are on the subject, I will mention this, despite the fact that it is in other recipes in the blog.
Canned cubes or chopped tomatoes should be checked for Calcium Citrate. This is added to the tomatoes to keep the shape of the food. When you cook tomatoes down there should be a certain amount of breakdown of the tomato. It should not be like stewed tomatoes when you eat them. Also this will change the texture. I hate putting something that is like a slug in my mouth, and that is what these seem like to me.

About Onions: It is absolutely appropriate to use red onions in this. They appeal to the eye and to the taste buds, but I almost never use them. there are plenty of onions available that are just as sweet as the red. I also don't see the pleasant color everyone always talks about, I just see a dull purple-gray.
Also, try starting a colony of Egyptian onions in your yard. They grow about 15 inches high, on thick green tubes. Tiny bulblets form at the top in a cluster, and those eventually sprout as well. When the plant gets to the end of the season, they fall over, and the little bulbs sprout, making more plants. Let these go for a few years to get a nice bed of them, then you can harvest the stalks, the bulblets at the top etc. Put them in anything you would use scallions in. This dish would be great if you grilled some scallions and draped them over the top of this...many other dishes would benefit as well.
Tiny Cippolini or these Egyptian onions are nice too on a grill pan or heavy skillet and browned in olive oil, finished off with some balsamic or good quality wine vinegar evaporated till thicker in the pan and served cold.
Grammie had these onions growing in Medford, and Aunt May always had them growing amongst the concrete ruins of the chicken house at the top of the land at the back. She would go out and harvest a bit for meals, but she never really encouraged their growth. She did not need much when it was just the two of them in the house, and less when she was alone.

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