Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My Italian Muse: Mario Batali's Stemperata di Pollo

More than any other food luminary on TV, my cooking style has been most influenced by watching Mario Batali. Of all the themes that run through his show, Molto Mario, the one that I most adhere to is the concept embodied in the word that--to the derision of some and the raison d'etre for others--became the New Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year for 2007: locavore. Though he is by now no means the first, Mario has been consistently emphasizing for years that the use of fresh local ingredients will make the food that comes from your kitchen stand out from the food that comes from everyone else's. He has said on his show that every Italian believes that what grows locally or is produced in their region/town/village is indisputably the best, because of the soil, the air, the water or the whatever particular to that place. Even the organic produce from Whole Paycheck (picked who knows when/where and shipped to your store waiting God knows how long for you to buy it) will wilt when cooked and compared to what you can prepare from local ingredients.

There really are two parts to this chauvinistic concept: 1) what's grown here tastes best and 2) of all the things grown locally, what's now in season is what you should be eating. This "here and now" concept is now somewhat strange for many Americans. The wisdom of the past of eating what's in season, canning or preserving it for the winter, and awaiting its arrival next year is something we've long since gotten away from. People eat strawberries year round and serve asparagus at Thanksgiving. But I can say that getting into the habit of buying local seasonal produce will certainly make you appreciate what you have right now because you know it will be gone in about two months, just about the time you'll be getting tired of it anyway. Every year I eagerly await the asparagus at my farmer's market every spring as I get tired of winter squashes. Then I go through my battery of asparagus recipes a couple of times and then I'm done with asparagus for the year, thank you very much. Adopting the here and now approach to choosing your foods will also sensitize you to the reality that foods cooked and eaten out of season just don't taste right. The memory of the fully flavored fresh springtime asparagus keeps me from wanting it any other time.

The closest I myself have come to this blessed chauvinism occurred when I lived in Sendai, Japan teaching English in the 1990s. The Tohoku region I lived in was famous for its rice, called Sasanishiki, which was priced accordingly expensively. The Japanese are as proud of their rice as Italians are of their semolina pasta. My students would proudly claim that their rice was considered among the best in Japan. To this American, rice was rice. It's such an inexpensive staple food in the U.S. that the idea of paying a premium or that one rice was better than another was ludicrous to me, reared as I was on the cheap supermarket long grain rice of my childhood. But living there for three years I learned to appreciate that yes, rice matters! And the year that the rice crop was meager and the Japanese had to (gasp!) import foreign rice from the U.S. and Thailand, the rumors were rampant about its inferior taste and quality. (I'll never forget the looks on my Japaneses guests' faces when I had the audacity to serve them Thai rice with dinner! What the hell was I thinking?)

My theory is that Americans, as a nation of immigrants, believe that what the world has to offer will (and should) come to our doorsteps. Look at our greatest city, New York. Everyone knows that anything and everything that's been done somewhere else first is available somewhere in New York City (and most other world class American cities as well). We're always on the lookout for what's new somewhere else and making it our own somehow. Indeed, with so many people from so many countries adding their own to our mix, we're able to pick and choose what we want to explore whenever we want to try it. But this "world is my oyster" mentality makes us forget that oysters are only in seaon in months with "r" in them. If you wait to have something only once a year, when you do have it, you will surely appreciate it.

But back to Mario. I got a boatload of red wine at Christmas, so I was perusing chicken recipes and came across Stemperata di Pollo in Mario's Molto Italiano. I've never seen the episode where he cooks the dish and had also considered a recipe he calls Pollo all'Americano or Pollo al Vin Cotto, both of which I've made and loved before, but I felt like trying something new and the Stemperata had tons of veggies. The stemporata of the recipe name is the past participle form of a verb that means "stamp" as in stamp down and refers to how the olives are split open for use in the recipe, presumably to remove the pits.

I confess I did not have the potatoes called for, but I did have parsnips. And as I read recently on the Washington Post that parsnips were the starch of choice in Europe prior to the arrival of the New World potatoes, I felt comfortable with the substitution. The recipes calls for carrots also, which I did not have so I added a rather large peeled and cut up sweet potato. With these additions, my meal needed no additional starch, and I think I served it all with broccoli rabe on the side. Mario is not such a purist that he wouldn't mind my substitutions and my ingredients did come from the farmers market! I also used canned tomatoes instead of fresh, so my sauce needed to cook down to thicken nicely. A dredge in flour prior to browning the chicken would help with this. Mario expects that the chicken will be done with just a fifteen minute simmer, but I had really thick breasts that needed about 25 minutes. Next time I'll probably finish the braise in the oven at 325 degrees for about a half hour.

Chicken Stemperata: Stemperata di Pollo

Recipe courtesy Mario Batali

1 (3 1/2 pound) chicken, cleaned and cut into 8 serving portions [I just used two bone-in chicken breast halves]
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes [I substituted 3 large parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks]
2 red, yellow, or orange peppers, cored, seeded and cut into medium strips
1 stick celery, cut into large pieces
2 small unpeeled eggplants, cut into large cubes [I didn’t have any eggplants, sorry, Mario!]
2 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds [I substituted a large sweet potato cut into large chunks]
2 tablespoons salt packed capers, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup whole pitted Sicilian olives (the green variety)
4 fresh plum tomatoes, cut into large pieces [a 14 ounce can of chopped tomatoes will do fine; drain if you want but I just added the whole can]
5 whole chiles [obviously to taste, I used a hot chili paste that Mark Bittman showed how to make on his NY Times podcast]
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1/4 bunch each fresh chopped mint leaves and parsley leaves [no mint on hand so I used marjoram]
Pinch chile flakes [see whole chiles above]

Pat the cleaned chicken dry, and then season the pieces with salt and pepper. In a 12 to 14-inch saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil until hot but not smoking. Carefully add the chicken pieces and brown on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove chicken from the pan and set aside.

In the pan with the chicken drippings add potatoes [parsnips], peppers, celery, eggplant, carrot [sweet potato], capers, olives, tomatoes and whole chiles. Toss together. Add the wine [and hot chili paste if using] and chicken, season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes [up to 25 minutes really] until chicken is cooked through. Remove from the heat and stir in chopped mint, parsley and a pinch of chili flakes.

Transfer the cooked stew to a serving dish and allow to cool to room temperature before serving. [Hot out of the oven works just fine too.] Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve.

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