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In The Pyramid of Mud, the newest paperback Montalbano mystery to be released in English, it takes only to page 34 to find the intrepid Sicilian police detective regaling himself with one of his favorite things to eat: “a glorious pasta ‘ncasciata” that his housekeeper Adelina had made and left for his dinner. That dish appears in many of the 22 books in the series, always eagerly greeted and blissfully consumed by our hero.
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A few years ago I wrote here about my attempt to make that fabulous pasta ‘ncasciata, using the recipe in the cookbook I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri. My version was a bit of a disappointment – a decent baked pasta dish, but not extraordinary.

I knew that there’s no single, canonical version of pasta ‘ncasciata, but they all should be good. Encountering it again in the new Montalbano story, I felt I should really give the recipe another chance.

I had ideas for changes I wanted to try, some because of guesses I’d made about vague recipe directions, and others to liven up the dish I’d made – about which, in my original post, I said “All the ingredients and textures blended too much. You didn’t get the symphony of individual flavors that a forkful of a truly great baked pasta dish provides. The eggplant was barely noticeable, the salami and eggs indistinguishable.”

Ingredients that are available in this country for Sicilian recipes aren’t always identical to the same-named items grown and made on their home turf. Thanks to American agribusiness, ours are often blander, more processed, less flavorful, and less fresh. I’d want to make allowances for that, while still keeping to the spirit of the book’s recipe. (Also, this time I was going to be extremely careful not to overcook the pasta.)

An occasion for my attempt soon presented itself: We’d invited a few good friends for a casual “family” dinner. These were adventurous eaters who wouldn’t mind being experimented on – at least, not if we also gave them lots of good wine! So I set to work.

To start, I peeled, sliced, salted, and fried two one-pound eggplants in olive oil. That was more eggplant, more thickly sliced, than I used last time, but the recipe merely says four eggplants, no size or slice thickness given. We like eggplant a lot.

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Next was to make a tomato-meat sauce. To perk it up, this time I infused garlic and peperoncino in the olive oil for browning my half pound of chopped sirloin. Then I stirred in a pint of my own light tomato sauce, salt, and pepper; and simmered for 25 minutes, until it thickened. That was more tomato and longer cooking than the recipe seems to call for, but its instructions on that point aren’t very clear, and I wanted more tomato richness. Having no fresh basil, I used parsley.

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I boiled a pound of imported Italian penne until they were not quite done, drained them and sprayed them with cold water to stop the cooking. The other ingredients to prepare were two hardboiled eggs, two ounces of mortadella or salame, and two cheeses: caciocavallo and pecorino. Last time I’d used a mild salame; this time I bought a livelier one: hot soppressata.
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My cheeses were the biggest accommodation to ingredient differences. The recipe calls for 7 ounces of tuma or young caciocavallo, plus 3½ ounces of grated pecorino. The only caciocavallo available here is somewhat aged – not soft and fresh, like Sicilian tuma, which isn’t here at all. The first time around, I hadn’t realized how much difference the age would make. The large amount of strong, dry cheese dominated and sort of flattened the flavors of the other ingredients. I didn’t want that to happen again.

Since caciocavallo is in the same broad cheese family as mozzarella (I’ve seen it called “mozzarella on steroids”), I decided to substitute mozzarella for some of the caciocavallo. The cheese in the picture above is 4 ounces of chopped mozzarella mixed with 2 ounces of grated caciocavallo.

I took a broad, shallow baking dish to assemble the ‘ncasciata, making layers of pasta, meat sauce, eggplant, sliced eggs, diced soppressata, and the cheese mixture. The recipe called for grated pecorino on each layer too, but I left it out this time.
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The top layer was eggplant, dabs of sauce, the cheese mixture, and just a light sprinkling of grated pecorino.
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The dish baked for 25 minutes in a 425° oven, sending out a very tempting aroma. Hopes (mine) and expectations (everyone else’s) were high as I brought it to the table. It looked and smelled so good that I began to serve before even remembering to take a photo of it – as you can see by the missing piece at the bottom right, below. (Thanks, Steven, for reminding me!)
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Well, this pasta ‘ncasciata was a definite success. All the flavors stood out as themselves and companioned beautifully with each other. The eggplant was luscious. The two cheeses balanced each other in taste and texture. The amount of tomato seemed just right: it was mostly absorbed by the other ingredients, providing flavor and moisture but no loose liquid. The soppressata tidbits were tiny sparks on the palate. The penne in the center were properly soft, and those at the edges nicely crunchy.

All in all, this was a dish I’d be bold enough to serve to Montalbano himself – at least if Adelina wasn’t around.

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When you’ve got a good recipe, it can be tempting to try to turn it into another good recipe, just by varying the ingredients. Some of those times, you may wish you’d left well enough alone. Other times you may get a dish that keeps the best of the original and embellishes it with something new. I managed to do that recently.

For an upcoming dinner, I was thinking of a large piece of moist-cooked meat. La Tavola Italiana, my first cookbook, has a very pleasant recipe for braciolone – a rolled stuffed flank steak braised in a small brown sauce – that I hadn’t revisited in years. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of braciolone recipes, owing to the many possible variations on both meat and filling. My filling was a modest one: just small amounts of prosciutto, parsley, grated pecorino, raisins, and pignoli, with bread crumbs and raw egg to bind.

This time, I envisioned my dish as a pork roll braised in tomato sauce. I had a nice 1½ pound piece of butterflied pork shoulder to use for it, which isn’t large as braciolone cuts usually are, but I’d be feeding only three people that evening, and it would be enough. I pounded the meat as thin as it would go.
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Pulling things out of the refrigerator for the stuffing, I was suddenly gobsmacked. I had no raisins or pignoli! How was that possible? I always have raisins and pignoli.

But no, I’d used them up and neglected to replace them. Their sweetness and crunch are important to the dish, and it was too late to dash out to a store. What to do? Well, desperate times require desperate measures: I smeared the surface of the pork with a thin layer of Indian mango chutney.

In case there might be need to mitigate that “uncanonical” flavor, I added some minced mushrooms and onion, softened in olive oil – which I had been considering using anyway – to smaller quantities of the remaining stuffing ingredients. Then I got ready to roll.
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I have to say I’m terrible at rolling and tying meat. If I clumsily try to wind a single piece of string around the cylinder, it never stays closed, so I have to strangle it with individual ties. Nor can I ever manage to fold in the ends of the roll so the stuffing can’t leak out during the cooking. Here I had to sew the ends closed with a darning needle and heavy thread. My braciolone wound up looking like the victim of a bad auto crash.
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Well, it wasn’t pretty, but neither was it the worst-looking roll I’d ever achieved. I tenderly carried it to a casserole and browned it in olive oil. Predictably, some of the stuffing immediately started to escape.
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Once the meat was browned I removed it to a plate, deglazed the pan with white wine, added eight peeled and chopped plum tomatoes and let them soften a bit, then returned the meat.
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My braciole cooked covered, being turned and basted occasionally, until it was perfectly tender – about an hour and a quarter. Long before then it had been perfuming the kitchen with gorgeous aromas. The sauce was pleasantly nubbly from the escaping bits of stuffing that had merged with the tomatoes and meat juices. The meat was pretty messy to slice for serving . . .
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. . . but it was excellent. All the flavors harmonized beautifully. There was a just-detectable hint of the sweet chutney spices, which complemented the natural sweetness of the pork. Really, pork and tomatoes love each other: The pork enriched the sauce and intensified the flavor of the now-melted tomatoes, and the tomatoes drew out even more succulence from that tender, juicy cut of pork. That’s why I always make at least a little more of this dish than we need for dinner: It’s even better the next day.

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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 A few coincidences set the stage for a very interesting dinner at home this week.

  • Beloved Spouse, having decided to write a post for his wine blog on a comparison between prosecco and champagne, brought home a representative bottle of each, first for a formal tasting, then to test with dinner foods.
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  • I had just read Fatal Pursuit, a detective novel by Martin Walker that has Perigord police chief/gastronome Bruno Courrèges making blinis of an unusual kind to serve with local caviar – a kind I wanted to try to make.
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  • We had a little jar of American transmontanus caviar in the refrigerator.

Everyone who reads the Bruno books knows that their lavish descriptions of the hero’s cooking are virtually narrative recipes. I’ve written about re-creating some of his dishes here. The blinis in this story are not the traditional Russian ones in several ways. Bruno doesn’t use any buckwheat flour; he adds chopped chives to his batter of flour, milk, egg yolk, and melted butter; and – because he doesn’t have time to raise the blinis with yeast – he beats the egg white into peaks and folds it in. I did the same.
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I dropped the batter by tablespoonsful into very hot butter in a frying pan. (Bruno remarks that this is one of the few places he doesn’t use duck fat!) They cooked quickly and neatly, making 20 fluffy 2-inch pancakes.
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After we’d had the formal tasting of the sparkling wines alone, we opened our caviar and sat down to find out how the champagne and prosecco would go with our dinner dishes. The blinis themselves were fine – light and delicate, an excellent vehicle for the caviar. I think the leftovers, which I froze, may be just as good with smoked salmon or sturgeon.
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We did the same tasting of the two wines along with the dinner’s main course, which was sauteed soft-shell crabs on toast and a summer vegetable mélange of okra, corn, and tomatoes (which I’ve also written about here).
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I’ll leave the detailed results of the wine-wine and wine-food comparisons for Tom’s blog post to report. What I’ll say is simply that Bruno’s blinis were a success, all the food was delicious, both the wines were delightful, and the entire evening sparkled like the wine.

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Napoleon Bonaparte apparently had very little time for, or interest in, what he ate. Brillat-Savarin said of him “his household was organized in such a way that no matter where he was or what the hour of the day he had but to speak one word in order to be presented with a chicken, cutlets, and coffee.”

Out of that predilection grew the chicken dish named for Bonaparte’s famous victory at the battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800. As Robert Courtine recounts the story in his fascinating historical cookbook The Hundred Glories of French Cooking, the general’s cooking wagon had gotten lost, and his chef, Durand, had nothing in his own carriage but a drum of oil and a flask of brandy. Durand sent soldiers out to scavenge in the countryside, and they returned with a few chickens, eggs, tomatoes, and garlic. Then:

In the twinkling of an eye the birds are plucked. They are cut up with a saber and set to brown in some oil while the garlic is being crushed between two stones and the tomatoes thrown into the frying pan without even being peeled. A spurt of brandy flavors the sauce. And the victorious general is served as befits a leader … [the dish] attended by a ring of fried eggs and full military honors.

If that legend is true, the combination was a great serendipity.

Courtine’s recipe is the version of Poulet Marengo I like best, and happily it doesn’t insist on either the saber or the stones. Normally I do cut up a whole chicken for it, but this time for a casual supper for three, I used just three chicken legs – thighs and drumsticks. I salted, peppered, floured, and browned them in garlicky olive oil. (Courtine wants the garlic crushed and stirred in raw at the end of the cooking, but we prefer our garlic a bit tamer than that.)
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Next I flamed them with a generous dose of brandy. It would’ve made a lovely campfire!
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As soon as the flames died I added cut-up tomatoes (peeled, I confess), along with a few more “inauthentic” ingredients called for by Courtine: white wine, salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. This all simmered, covered, for 40 minutes.
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Meanwhile, I prepared another item added by Courtine’s recipe: slices of bread fried in olive oil. (Possibly Durand commandeered bread for Napoleon from the soldiers’ rations?)
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At the last minute I fried the eggs, set them on the fried bread slices, and placed them around the serving dish with the chicken and its sauce. Et voilà, poulet Marengo!
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It really is an excellent dish. The sharpness of the sauce, from the wine and brandy, contrasts beautifully with the lushness of the fried eggs and bread. The chicken just sits there enjoying it all – as we three diners did.

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Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

eggplant

Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

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A few weeks ago I wrote about my disappointment with a pasta recipe from Katie Parla’s cookbook Tasting Rome. Even so, it’s an attractive book – with lovely photography by Kristina Gill – so I was still eager to try their versions of other traditional Roman dishes. This next one I made, though decent, wasn’t anything to be excited about.

Pollo alla romana – chicken braised with peppers and tomatoes – is a simple but delicious down-home dish, a standby of every Roman trattoria. It was one of the first recipes I developed for publication in La Tavola Italiana, so as before I was judging Parla’s version of a dish against my own.

For a half recipe to serve two, I used two huge chicken thighs from my freezer. These monsters together weighed a whole pound, which, considering how much was solid meat, I figured could stand in for half a modest-sized chicken.

thighs

The first recipe direction interested me: It calls for salting the chicken pieces 6 to 24 hours in advance; and that’s all the salt there is in the entire dish. I’d never done that before. I tried it, and it was indeed enough salt – though I can’t say I detected the promised “more delicious final product.” The rest of the cooking procedure was also different from mine. Here are the book’s steps:

  • Brown cut-up chicken pieces in olive oil for 8-10 minutes; remove them to a plate.
  • Add sliced onions, sliced bell peppers, and garlic to the pan; cook uncovered 10 minutes, or until the vegetables soften.
  • Pour on white wine; deglaze the pan; stir in canned tomatoes and fresh marjoram.
  • Return the chicken pieces to the pan and add enough water to submerge them halfway.
  • Cook uncovered 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is very thick and the chicken nearly falling off the bone.

And here are mine:

  • Brown chicken pieces in olive oil with garlic.
  • Pour on white wine, deglaze and cook briskly until it evaporates.
  • Stir in chopped canned plum tomatoes, salt, and pepper; simmer 15 minutes.
  • Add cut-up bell peppers; cover and cook gently until peppers are tender, 15-30 minutes.
  • If sauce is too thin, remove chicken and peppers; rapidly boil down sauce.

As you can see, a big difference is the book’s sauteeing the vegetables by themselves – that, and the addition of onions to the dish.

vegetables

That in itself is not a bad idea, but though I sliced the vegetables to the recipe’s specifications, they took much more than 10 minutes to soften.

Then after returning the chicken pieces to the pan with all the other ingredients, I cringed at the requirement to nearly flood the pan with water.

thighs afloat

Why on earth would you do that? It makes it possible – indeed, necessary – to complete the cooking with the pan uncovered, but why would you want to? The part of the chicken pieces exposed to the air is not being imbued with the flavors as it would in the moist atmosphere of a covered pan. I also feel that my version’s deglazing of the pan with wine while the chicken pieces are in it is important to let the chicken absorb some of the wine flavors.

Finally, 30 minutes wasn’t nearly enough for the sauce to have thickened and the chicken to be nearly falling off the bone. I had to cook it quite a bit longer, and the sauce still didn’t thicken very much. The timing problems, along with a few other anomalies in the recipe directions, made me wonder if the authors had ever actually cooked the dish for themselves.

Rather than plop those big thighs whole onto two dinner plates, I took the meat off the bones and combined small pieces of chicken with the peppers and sauce in a serving bowl.

pollo alla romana

The dish tasted all right to me: not unlike what I’d had in some restaurants in Rome. Beloved Spouse was less pleased with it. He said it wasn’t lively enough, the flavors too muted, and the sauce tasted both too sweet and too thin. (Tough critic, that spouse.) I had to agree that my recipe makes a more intensely flavored dish: fresher tasting peppers, more “chickeny” chicken. It’s faster and easier to make, too. So I’ll stick with my version – though I might try experimentally adding a few onions next time I make it. (Beloved Spouse just cocked an eyebrow.)

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