‘So you don’t even eat…chicken?’
Grandma’s inquisitive, bewildered eyes were moving slowly between my brother – who appeared to be shielding himself behind a tall chair – and the pot warming up on the stove.
Our casual visit had turned into a lunch invite. It had been a while. Far from being the weekly recurrence it once was, lunch at grandma’s had become more of a special occasion reserved for New Years and Easter. We visited often, of course, spent some time and chatted for a good while, but we rarely stopped for a meal. We liked to tell ourselves the reason was that grandma was getting old, and that we didn’t want to give her any extra work in the kitchen. We knew in fact that her hearty food was something to be had in moderation. That day, though, she convinced our reluctant selves to stay.
Grandma isn’t a woman who could ever be taken by surprise. Her pantry was always well-stocked, her fridge was full, her garden bountiful, and you could stay assured she had cooked something for, at the very least, six people. That day, she emerged from the ‘real kitchen’ downstairs with a pot of chicken in red sauce she had probably started cooking at the break of dawn. I say the real kitchen because she had two. The one on the first floor (the part of the house she was living in) was barely used to make coffee and wash the dishes. The kitchen on the ground floor was the operative one. It was nothing more than the old kitchen – easily from the 1960s – she had previously upstairs. She had kept part of the cupboard, plus the stove and the oven, and had fitted it in a room downstairs. Despite the fact the hobs were ancient and could only be partially lit, she would stubbornly just want to cook there. It was, after all, the one she was truly familiar with. She still knew all the tricks to make it work the way she wanted.
When the chicken arrived upstairs, my brother grinned. He then said, as delicately as he was able to, that he had recently embraced a vegetarian diet. ‘Didn’t I tell you? I am pretty sure I did tell you. Yes, I told you last time I came’, he said cautiously.
‘So what? You do eat chicken anyway, right?’
‘I’ve got fish. Tuna?’
‘How about cheese’
‘You can’t just eat cheese. Don’t be silly, just eat the chicken. This is my chick, one of those you see roaming outside’ she said, pointing energetically outside the window. ‘It’s good.’
‘I would rather not…Oh, whatever, fine’.
It was clearly a lost war with her. In her mind, the idea of not eating something, not because of taste, but because of ethics, didn’t make any sense, on any level. For someone who had lived during the war, meat was something not to be refused. Vegetarianism as a choice, for people her age, was just plain idiocy. She had been basically vegetarian against her will for most of her life: rice, beans, polenta, fruits and some vegetables had been the base of her diet for decades, day in, day out. She would have gladly taken any kind of meat or fish coming her way. Those were different times, of course, but you get the idea.
Fast forward, my brother is now enjoying an omnivore diet that still involves mostly plants. So do I. But on occasion, in the same spare way Grandma must have eaten it in her youth, we enjoy meat, especially good chicken from the Saturday market here in town. Someone has put a label on this way of eating (flexitarian), but I dislike labels because they tend to stink of ancient and moldy. Each of us finds his or her own balance in terms of diet, nutrition and the like, as well as a winning formula for health and wellbeing, pleasure and happiness. In our formula, there is a bi-monthly appointment with a good chicken. We cook it in various ways based on the season and the availability of produce. This time of the year, though, and for the three months to come, we mostly cook it with sweet peppers, onions, and tomatoes, until the meat falls off the bone and becomes utterly juicy and delicious.
This is not Grandma’s recipe for chicken in sauce, and you’d be thankful for that – hers is not something easy on the stomach, particularly in the summer. Rather, it’s an adaptation of a recipe found in the always brilliant A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David – Pollo in Padella con Peperoni (skillet chicken with peppers). In her recipe David uses a whole chicken cut into pieces, while I tend to use just thighs, drumsticks, and sometimes wings. The dark meat of these cuts adds an extra dimension to the dish. It also helps balancing the sweetness of the sauce, to which a splash of white Vermouth is added (consider this last passage a totally random experiment I’ve made on the second or third time into making this recipe, yet a pretty darn successful one, if I can say so myself. I never looked back since. Consider this my secret ingredient). In addition to the thyme and basil that the original recipe calls for, I include a few tarragon leaves (my current favourite herb): used sparingly, they really give freshness to the dish without covering the other flavours.
Chicken with Peppers
(Pollo coi Peperoni)
Pour enough olive oil into a large braising pan so that it covers the bottom by a couple of millimeters. Place it over medium heat, and when the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic. Fry gently until fragrant and translucent, then add the chicken and brown it for five-six minutes. Add the thyme, then pour in the vermouth to deglaze the chicken. Allow the liqueur to evaporate for a minute, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pan, and cook the chicken for about 45 minutes, checking every now and then and stirring it a bit so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn.
Meanwhile, Preheat the oven to 200 C. Rinse the peppers and pat dry, then arrange them on an oven rack set on top of a baking pan. Roast until charred and soft, turning them a couple of times while they are cooking. It should all take no more than half an hour, depending on how big the peppers are. Allow to cool a moment, then peel and discard the top and seeds. Cut them into strips, then add them to the pan together with the tomatoes and the basil and tarragon leaves.
Cook for fifteen more minutes, stirring occasionally. The dish is ready when the tomatoes are soft and falling apart. Before serving, taste and adjust the seasoning. You can serve this dish with pilaf rice, or plenty of bread to mop the delicious juices left on the plate at the end of the meal.
- Tamar Adler on thoughtful ominvorim
- Rachel‘s new, beautiful book is out. It’s called Five Quarters, and it is full of that beautiful, anecdotal, evoking food writing and simple, wholesome, delicious recipes that make a cookbook an instant classic. It has found it’s place next to my favourite paperback Penguins – the great classics of English cookery such as Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. There is a beloved recipe for chicken with peppers in the book and many I have yet to try. You’ll read more about this book on these pages in the next future, but for now, do yourself a favour, go and get your copy.