"sun-soaked, fullsome and a bit much if you are not in the mood. But if you are, it is gorgeous, the stewed tomatoes and peppers like a well-matched couple, balancing each other out, acidity tempered by sweetness and vice-versa, smothering the chicken."
This is what we had for dinner last night. I was planning to cook it anyway because I currently have a lot of peppers which need to be used. My husband enthusiastically bought me a big bag the other day. However, it neatly fits into the things I was talking about yesterday (and the day before come to that).
It's a favourite dish for me because it is so simple and so delicious - and guess what - it's a Robert Carrier recipe. Well it's not an invention of his but it's his version. So here I go with a post about a dish, after I have cooked it, and also a start on cooking lots of things from Great Dishes of the World.
But already I am compromising, because it's not from Great Dishes of the World (though it should be one of them), it's from The Robert Carrier Cookbook. Never mind. We'll go with the spirit of the project.
I do not remember how many years ago I first cooked it. Back in the 70s I suspect, maybe the 60s even. And to tell you the truth I am still not absolutely sure why it is so good. But believe me it is.
Before I talk about the actual recipe I used and the process I went through, a little bit of history. There is no origin legend for this but it does indeed seem to be a Roman thing. Or a thing from the Castelli Romani, which is apparently a group of towns south east of Rome, in the hills, with large castles. It's an agricultural region and a wine growing region but honestly I don't really know why this would be a Roman dish. You might think it more likely to be a southern Italian dish. Traditionally it is eaten on August 15th - Ferragosto - a festival that was instituted by the Emperor Augustus. 'Ferre' means festival and 'agosto' is August. Mind you I saw somebody else say that this day is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and celebrates that. Well, as I have said before, pagan festivals evolve into Christian ones do they not? Besides that might be the tradition but of course it is also eaten at other times - most usually for lunch. One food writer commented that Italians can't - what does that mean? - eat peppers after lunchtime. Do they get indigestion if they do? Is there some sort of evil eye tradition? She didn't explain, but I find that really tantalising, so if anyone knows the answer to that, let me know. And actually it can't have been invented until all those explorers came back from the Americas with their tomatoes and peppers.
So first of all Robert Carrier's version and my cooking of it.
POLLO ALLA ROMANO CON PEPERONI
2 small frying chickens
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-6 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 Spanish onion, finely chopped
1/2 pint dry white wine
500g tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, mashed
2-4 green peppers sliced
Cut chicken into serving pieces and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sauté chicken pieces in olive oil until golden brown on all sides. Add finely chopped onion and dry white wine, and cook over a high heat until wine is reduced to half the original quantity. Add chopped tomatoes and garlic; cover pan and simmer until chicken is tender.
In the meantime sauté sliced green peppers in a little olive oil until tender. Serve with the chicken.
Looking at that recipe I see that I made several changes. I suspect that when I first made it I followed it to the letter. But I guess that's what any novice cook does isn't it? Over time the dish evolves as you start to do your own thing.
The main difference was the chicken. Back when that recipe was written you could not buy ready cut up pieces of chicken. So indeed I would have bought whole chickens and cut them up. And there is some virtue in doing that - cheaper to buy a whole chicken for one thing. And you get a variety of pieces to satisfy the picky amongst your audience. Plus you get left with bones from which to make stock. Also back in the day, although slightly later, when you could buy precut pieces, they always had bones in and skin on. Then they dropped the skin, then the bones. It's actually quite difficult to buy breasts with the bone in and/or the skin on these days. Not the other bits so much but certainly the breasts. I stopped cooking chicken with the skin on - except for roasted whole chicken - way back, having been scared about how unhealthy it was. And actually for this kind of dish I don't think keeping the skin on is so good anyway. Skin needs to be crisp for me.
So, since I was only making this for two, I actually just used one breast and cut it into bite sized pieces, so I have come quite a long way from Robert Carrier's cut up whole chickens. I didn't even keep the chicken in fairly large pieces.
As it happens I only had green peppers - well I used a couple with a tiny bit of orange in them, but usually I try and have a mix of colours - as do other cooks I noticed. One of them in fact, insisted on red peppers. So that was another slight variation. I also sautéed the peppers first and then set them aside. That way I can just use one pan. This I learnt from cooking it a few times. It gives the chicken a chance to soak up the flavour of the peppers from the oil as well. I also cooked the chicken a bit with the peppers on top at the end, just to warm up the peppers really.
I had no tomatoes - it's not the time of year is it? - so I used a tin of tomatoes. And I put the whole tin in, when really, for my quantity of chicken I should probably have only used half, or maybe even less. I reasoned that I could always just boil any surplus juice away. The quantity of wine I put in was inexact - about a glassful I think - and I probably put in more garlic and onion than Carrier suggested. I also added some chopped marjoram both in the cooking phase and at the end for decoration.
And it was very, very nice, served with Coles/Laurent sourdough bread to sop up the juices and a green salad. Maybe I should have held back on the tomatoes as I think they dominated the taste a little bit too much.
Honestly though this is the kind of dish, that once you have cooked a couple of times you can just do your own thing. It's the sort of dish you can imagine any Italian home cook throwing together from what she had in her stores. And actually there were not a lot of variations out there. Certainly no absolutely 'out there' variations. A very few added some pancetta to the mix. Some cooked the peppers with the chicken and tomatoes. Some fried the onion and garlic first. One person fried the garlic in the oil first, before throwing it out. Some roasted and skinned their peppers to be added at the end, and there were a few different herbs added to the mix. And somebody added a dash of balsamic vinegar. I think Nigella used Marsala somehow, but I couldn't find the recipe. However, all of these variations are within the spirit of the dish. Below are four of them: Pollo alla Romana from Amy Gulick on the Great Italian Chefs website; Pollo alla Romana from Rachel Roddy who is The Guardian's Italian columnist; Pollo alla Romana from a site called Food and Home and Claudia Roden's version made by a fan, called Padellata di pollo e peperoni
As you can see they all look similar, the main differences being the amount of juice, the shape of the chicken pieces and the colour of the peppers. Juice is probably a matter of taste and easily adjusted. Too much - just boil it away, not enough - add some more wine or tomatoes. And, take note, although I have only shown English language versions here, the Italian ones look very similar.
And another interesting thing - neither, The Silver Spoon, Italy the Beautiful Cookbook, nor Elizabeth David's Italian Food have recipes. Neither is there one in either of Jamie's Italian cookbooks. Maybe it's because it's such a basic recipe. A template from which all other sautéed/braised chicken recipes spring.
A child could make this. The only people who are not going to like it are those who don't like peppers - my younger son is one of those. It's an admirable dish to begin my post-cooking posts and my Robert Carrier posts. Have a go some time. Chicken, tomatoes, peppers (lots), garlic, onions and wine. Do your thing.