A few days ago, Lee and I celebrated our 25th anniversary. That’s a long time, but it’s not so long that I haven’t forgotten my experiences as a new bride. I had managed to keep a closely held secret: I didn’t know how to cook. Not a clue.
My new husband loved me so much he managed to fake enthusiasm when I tried my hand at homemade biscuits. They were horrible, partially because I overdid it on the baking soda and they were way too salty. This combined with the fact that I tried to compensate for their saltiness by NOT salting the gravy made the whole thing a disaster.
Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Somehow he managed to choke down my cooking, but it became painfully evident that I needed to learn to cook, quick, before we both starved to death.
That’s where Lee’s little old Italian grandmother, Rae (short for Rafael) came into play.
Being in Nana’s kitchen was always such a feast for the senses. More than once I witnessed strings of fresh pasta hanging to dry, ready to be bagged for future use, or in our case, a gift for the starving newlyweds. She always had homemade spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove, or frozen in one pound bags waiting to be brought out at a minutes’ notice. The rich red sauce was not too tart and expertly seasoned.
If asked nicely she would be happy to make the cacciatore. I’m not sure how many generations of Italians in Nana’s family knew this recipe, but Nana was a first generation American, so everything she made was authentic. None of this shortcut business.
The only substitute she made with her own mother’s recipe was that she didn’t pour the cacciatore sauce over polenta. The Bausingers liked mashed potatoes better. It sounds a little strange, but it tastes delicious.
I was hanging out with her one day when she began getting things from the fridge: a cut up chicken, some mushrooms, a few potatoes, and then from the pantry: some tomato sauce, a few spices. I eyed her warily. Whatever she was making looked pretty complicated. But when she asked me casually, “Ever had Chicken Cacciatore, Tina?” and I shook my head, I knew I was about to learn.
I watched carefully how Nana did everything, from browning the chicken, to adding the spices. At first, I duplicated her recipe exactly. It was a success the first time! As I became an expert, I added my own touches: fresh garlic instead of powder, chicken breasts instead of bone-in chicken, etc. I knew I had it down when my Lee finished a plate of my version and looked at me with admiring eyes.
“Tina, don’t tell Nana, but….this is better than hers!”
Nana died in 2000, but I have passed this on to my daughters in honor of her memory, and in the hopes that when they get married, maybe their poor husband won’t have to suffer the way their father did.
1 whole chicken, cut and diced or 2 packages of chicken breasts, diced
2 large cans of tomato sauce
1/2 package sliced mushrooms
1 onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp basil
2 tsp oregano
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 small can tomato paste
For the mashed potatoes:
1 small bag of potatoes
1 cup milk
1 stick of butter
salt and pepper to taste
Peel 8 large potatoes, rinse and dice. In a large soup pot, put water on to boil the potatoes. In a large skillet, pour a generous amount of olive oil. Heat thoroughly Add onion, garlic,mushrooms and pepper. Cook for a few minutes until the onions are translucent. Add the chicken, tomato sauce and paste, and spices, cooking until the juices in the chicken run clear. Simmer about fifteen minutes until thick.
When the water is boiling in the large soup pan, add the peeled and diced potatoes. Cover and reduce heat. Cook until a butter knife can cut through the potatoes. Drain carefully and mash, adding butter, milk, salt, pepper and a little garlic salt. Set aside.
When ready to serve, dollop a half a cup of mashed potatoes on each plate and top with a generous ladle of cacciatore sauce. Serve with garlic bread and salad for a complete meal. This recipe serves 6 hungry people, or 2 adults and 3 teenagers!