We’re a couple weeks into our annual harvest here and that means lots of grapes, lots of hard working people and in my case – lots of food. If you know me at all, you know that feeding people good food – the kind that nourishes both body and soul – is one of the greatest joys of my life. So in a lot of ways this is the best time of year for me.
The ritual of crew dinner at R. Stuart has become somewhat legendary around these parts. I’ve written about why we do it several times before, but in short we go to the trouble of feeding the crew who comes to work harvest for the practical reason that they’re working such long hours – sometimes 16 hours a day – every day, seven days a week and they just don’t have time to go to the grocery store and cook their own food. Plus, they’re working hard, and the work is pretty grueling. Without their help now, the wine wouldn’t get made. Lastly, we all love it. There are always colorful stories being swapped, a lot of laughs, some fairly heated debates, and sometimes even a little music – if there’s anyone around who can play a guitar or piano.
As one of our guest harvest interns said the other day “This is the kind of family dinner I always dreamed of having as a kid.” I’m sorry he didn’t have it then, but I’m glad he gets to experience it now.
So there’s a lot of planning and cooking for me. My embarrassingly large cookbook collection gets a rigorous workout at this time. There are some dishes I make every year for harvest, and other times I play around with what can be easily multiplied to feed a crowd, doesn’t mind sitting for a while if they’re running behind schedule (a very typical scenario) and fills their bellies with comforting food. It doesn’t hurt if it goes well with Pinot Noir either.
The other day I tried out a new-to-me version of an old favorite – Chicken Alla Cacciatora. The recipe comes from my well-worn copy of Ready When You Are, a compendium of comforting one-dish meals by the very prolific Martha Rose Schulman. I use this book a lot even at other times of the year, but the premise is perfect for harvest cooking as she compiled the dishes within to all be the kind that get better with a little waiting.
- 1/2 ounce dried mushrooms, such as porcini (about 1/2 cup)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 pieces chicken (I like thighs), skinned if you like
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small onion, minced
- 1 small carrot, minced
- 1 celery stalk, minced
- 2-3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons minced Italian Parsley
- 1 heaping teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 pound mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
- 1/2 cup hearty red wine
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes (I use Muir Glen Fire Roasted)
- Put the dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let sit for 30 minutes, until softened. Set a strainer over a bowl and line it with cheese cloth or a piece of paper towel. Drain the mushrooms in that strainer, capturing the soaking liquid. Rinse the mushrooms in several changes of water, squeeze out excess water and chop coarsely. Set aside. Measure out 1/4 cup of the soaking water and set it aside.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy nonstick skillet (I use cast iron). Season the chicken pieces generously with salt and pepper and brown on both sides until golden. Transfer the pieces to a plate when they are done. Pour off the fat from the pan and discard.(You can prep the vegetables while you are browning the chicken.)
- Turn the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. The add the onion, carrot and celery. Cook, stirring until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and parsley, rosemary, pepper flakes and a good pinch of salt. Cover, turn the heat to low and cook, stirring often, for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mixture is soft and aromatic. Stir in the fresh and dried mushrooms and another pinch of salt. Turn the heat back to medium and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms are just tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the wine and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes until the wine has reduced by about half. Add the tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring often for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes have cooked down a little and smell fragrant. Stir in the reserved mushroom soaking liquid. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper again.
- Return the chicken pieces to the pan and make sure they are well submerged in the tomato mixture. Simmer over medium heat, partially covered for 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Taste the sauce, adjust the seasoning and serve with pasta or polenta