Let us begin with some definitions with deep roots in classic Italian cooking. Stufato and brasato (stewing and braising) are cooking methods: slow cooking over low heat with lots of moisture, tenderizing and flavoring the meats in the process. Stufati (stewing) involves cooking smaller uniformly-cut pieces of meat totally immersed in liquid, while brasato (braising) involves cooking larger pieces of meat (think shanks or roasts) only partially covered in liquid. Otherwise these processes are very similar. Cacciatori, as you will see below, is one of the many variations on this theme. Just as for the scallopini in the last post, we will discover how to use these methods for white meat and firm white fish, and how to easily adapt the recipes to create a myriad of flavorful entrées.
Chicken à la Marsala
As any Nonna will tell you, Chicken à la Marsala (chicken made with Marsala wine) will be the best you can ever eat. But there are several versions. Chicken à la Marsala can be a variation of Chicken Breast Scallopini Milanese. The flour-dusted scallopini are first sautéed in butter before removing from the pan; then the mushrooms and Marsala are added to the pan (maybe with garlic, maybe more butter) to make a sauce for pouring over the Scallopini Milanese. I prefer a more rustic version made not with scallopini and not sautéed, but rather, stewed. Take bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and brown them two-to-four minutes per side in olive oil. Remove from the pan and add onion, garlic, and mushrooms and sauté until the vegetables are softened. Then add chicken stock and Marsala wine, return the chicken thighs to the pan, cover and cook until done. You could also prepare veal stew this way or cubed pork or country-style short ribs. And you have to decide which way to “bend” the flavors: for “sweet” use sweet Marsala; for lean and elegant, use dry Marsala.
Blanquette de Veau (French Veal Stew)
If you are in the mood for something with cream, you might try a blanquette, a stew of light meat or seafood in a white sauce. To do this, eliminate the mushrooms from the preparation above, add diced celery and carrots to the diced onion and garlic mixture, sauté this mirepoix/odori in butter, add the chicken stock and cream, and stew the veal until tender. To thicken the sauce it is traditional to add beaten egg yolk but it is wise to temper the egg yolk first (that is, add a couple of tablespoons of hot broth and whip into the eggs—this “pre-warms” them so they do not cook when added to the sauce.) Again, this can also be made with chicken, pork or rabbit. Can you prepare a white fish in a cream-based sauce? Yes, you can!
Chicken à la Normande
Normandy is the apple-growing and Calvados-producing region of western France near the English Channel. To create a dish à la Normande, cook apple slices with the blanquette and finish with Calvados (apple brandy).
À la Cacciatore
Cacciatore refers to the preparations as made by hunters (the literal translation of cacciatori) or shepherds, who would be cooking a rustic meal outside over on open fire. This idea is embodied in the cacciatore ingredients. Beginning with Chicken à la Marsala above, add diced tomatoes and chopped red bell peppers and you now have “à la Cacciatore” or “Hunter Style.” Serve over soft polenta.
Although Chicken Cacciatore is the most well-known of these preparations, there is no reason that it could not be used featuring turkey, pork, veal or rabbit, and, with some variation in the cooking time, with swordfish or a rockfish such as rock cod.
À la Veracruzana
This is cacciatore-style with a twist: add diced chili peppers for some “heat,” add cumin for exotic flavor, and garnish with cilantro. Traditionally in Mexico this sauce is served over codfish (Cod à la Veracruzana), but there is no reason the sauce would not work very well with pork and the rest of the white meats.
Same idea as above, with different spices. Sauté the onion in a Dutch oven, brown the chicken thighs, add cumin, saffron, paprika, cinnamon, olives and finally broth, and stew until the chicken is cooked through. Then add the peel of preserved lemon (lemons that have been quartered and preserved in salt).
A sweeter version: stew country-style pork ribs (short ribs) with prunes and/or apricots, cashews or pistachios or peeled almonds, and use a sweeter, fuller-bodied red wine or tawny port as part of the stewing liquid.
Variations ad infinitum!
As you can imagine, by varying the vegetables, spices and liquids, you can make innumerable presentations using the white meats (turkey, veal, pork, chicken, rabbit) and firm-fleshed white fish (basa, swordfish, cod). In the mood for earthiness tonight? Try à la Fungi or à la Marsala. Are you in the mood for a tomato-based presentation? Cacciatore is your dish. Care for something creamy? Blanquette or à la Normande. Something sweet? Cook with dried fruit and nuts. Something exotic? Try cumin, cinnamon, saffron, preserved lemons. Something hot and spicy? Just add chili peppers!
Don’t forget, these articles are meant to inspire and give basic techniques. For specific recipes there are fabulous recipes in books and online. And as we have said before—“play with your food,” vary it at will, change up your choices of meats, fish, herbs and spices. No need to get stuck in a rut of one flavor. Just enjoy!
PS Part II of “Stufati and Brasati” will focus on red meats (beef, lamb, etc.) and larger cuts such as shank.