Cacciatore-22: The remaking of a family recipe

A version of this story appears in the Feb. 23, 2012, edition of the Rutland County Express.

Over the years, I’ve cooked through the cannon of Sabataso family recipes. I’ve made holiday dishes like Spaghetti Olio and baccalà, which traditionally only appear on Christmas or when important Italians like Sinatra the Pope show up.

I’ve also tried my hand at all the everyday recipes — the ones we prepare during the week or for Sunday dinner. They are relatively quick, simple dishes, like meatballs, stuffed peppers or pasta e fagioli that can be thrown together from whatever is in the pantry.

(An aside: Having a well-stocked pantry is something that was ingrained in me from an early age. Every time I have moved into a new apartment, my mother has delivered what I call the “Guinea care package” of essentials: olive oil, pasta, canned tomatoes, garlic, quality grated cheese and enough dried parsley, oregano and basil to bluff Nancy Botwin.)

Cooking is fairly ubiquitous in an Italian family. You don’t just cook to eat; it’s how you communicate — a medium through which to express creativity and celebrate heritage. A meal is an occasion, a happening. At the table, you are present and engaged with the people and the food. You start together and remain until the wine runs out.

Learning the recipes of my family has been something I’ve undertaken with pride and care. Knowing my way around the kitchen was as much a right of passage as learning to throw a football. And considering I never perfected a spiral, it’s a good thing I can make a damn fine marinara.

But of all the recipes we brought over with us from the old country, our chicken cacciatore is one we should have left on the boat. Traditionally, cacciatore is a braised chicken dish cooked “hunter-style” with tomatoes, onions, peppers, herbs and wine. It can be served over alone or over pasta.

Our cacciatore, however, is a bland departure from the traditional recipe. The meat is placed in a roasting pan along with stewed tomatoes and potatoes, and cooked in the oven. The result is a bare-bones version of the original, lacking any real flavor or flair, and was the root of many a dissatisfied meal from my youth.

My family’s recipe dates back to my great-grandmother, Giovannina. My best guess for how our version came to be is that it was simple adaptation. Working with the ingredients at hand and an immigrant’s budget, Giovannina put together a meal that, while fairly dull, provided adequate sustenance. (The added economic bonus of this preparation is that it is actually two meals in one: just toss the pan drippings and leftover chicken with some spaghetti and presto, you have tomorrow night’s dinner.)

Through four generations, our cacciatore endured. Even after my family opened a restaurant, demonstrating that they had both the means and the imagination to improve upon it, the recipe has never evolved. It’s tradition; it’s how we make it.

As a child, cacciatore was one of those meals I struggled through politely while the threat of the next night’s meal hung overhead. Yes that, too, had become part of the tradition, much to the delight of my father, who relishes any meal where a “to be continued” is implied.

In college, I happily left the dish behind. On return visits, my dinner request was always “Anything but chicken cacciatore.” But moving back to town meant more family dinners, which increased my chances of pulling the dreaded cacciatore card.

Something had to be done. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. Working from a version I tried from another family’s kitchen (treason!), I set about creating my own cacciatore recipe.

Returning to the stovetop, I slowly braised the chicken in a pot with an onion, some garlic, a couple bell peppers (red and green) and bay leaves. I poured in some red wine, let it simmer then added the vegetables: carrots, zucchini, potatoes, mushrooms, capers and green olives.

Next, I sprinkled in oregano, parsley, basil, salt and pepper. Finally, I added stewed tomatoes and some water to make a thick-ish broth. Toward the end, I tossed in some grated pecorino Romano cheese. Breaking even farther from tradition, I served it over bay leaf-steamed rice. The result was much something much closer to a traditional cacciatore.

Pleased with my creation, I decided to offer it up for my father’s consideration at dinner one fateful Sunday. In Italian culture, they say you should never go against the family. This is true both in business and in cooking. For my father, my version was an over-complicated and unnecessary corruption of something that needed no improvement.

Despite my prior explanation that I would be serving my cacciatore, my father had still expected the one he knew. What he got instead was profound disappointment.

This is not the first my tinkering with family recipes has incurred my father’s fury. My subversive addition of fresh lemon zest to the baccalà nearly ruined Christmas one year, and my vegetarian take on our stuffed peppers was perceived as an insult to Italians everywhere. (In a different time, I probably would have been taken out to the middle of a lake like Fredo Corleone.)

You’d think I would eventually learn my lesson — toe the line, stop meddling and just cook the status quo. But I can’t help myself. Some kids rebel by getting tattoos or piercing; I reconstruct my family’s recipes.

Yet, my father’s monolithic attitude toward the kitchen is mostly bluster. The truth is many of our recipes have evolved over the years, including many of those at our restaurant — they are tweaked and improved as each generation adds its own mark in some way. That’s not to saw those changes aren’t hotly contested along the way. Just ask anyone in my immediate family who makes the best marinara and you will get six definitive and unapologetic “I do”s.

So while I don’t love our cacciatore, I know it’s ours. And I understand my father’s unwavering defense of it. It’s not about what’s in the dish or how it’s prepared, it’s about what it represents: family, heritage, history — memories of a past whose long-departed inhabitants live on in our traditions and the food we make.

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