Monday, October 5, 2009

Chicken Cacciatore and the Art of Flavor Balance



I’m going to let you in on a big, expensive secret. I had to go to culinary $chool to get a thorough grasp on the concept, but it’s been the single most important lesson I took from my formal training.

At the heart of every great meal ever made is this one guiding principle, the key to unlocking flavor, the essence of kitchen success. Are you ready? Drumroll….

ACID. SALT. FAT.

That’s it. The acid-salt-fat balance is a three-legged stool. Flavor comes to life when there is the right amount of fat (in the form of oil, butter, meat renderings), salt (kosher, sea, seasoned,soy sauce, etc.), and acid (citrus juices, vinegars, wine, etc.) When one of the “legs” is out of balance, it just doesn’t stand up.

But when you strike that harmonious three-note chord … LaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaH… success!

Ever made hollandaise sauce? Egg yolks, butter, salt, lemon juice? The stuff is pure fat, salt, and acid. While making hollandaise I’ve tasted the yellow froth consisting of pure egg yolks and butter, before the salt and lemon were added. Bleck! But add a hefty pinch of salt, and the right amount of lemon juice, and it’s, “like Baby Jesus sliding down your throat in velvet slippers.” (from Ruth Reichl’s memoir, "Comfort Me with Apples").

How do you know how much fat, salt or acid to add? Taste. And taste again. Take baby steps at first, following the rule that you can always add more, but you can’t take it out. Soon, you will become a master.

This recipe is a great one for learning to tune your acid-salt-fat senses. Anyone who knows a lick about cooking knows how to make a tomato sauce, but if you want to make one that takes your quick Tuesday night pasta dinner from lackluster to HALLELEUJAH! then make this.

Olive oil carries the flavor, white wine and tomatoes brighten it with acid, and enough salt makes your mouth say hooray! to this Chicken Cacciatore. If it’s not working, add another sprinkle of salt, stir, and taste. Close your eyes, roll it around in your mouth with a noodle or two. Tastebuds are a cook’s best friend. They’ll let you know exactly when you’ve hit the bull’s-eye.

Chicken Cacciatore (serves 4-6)

1¾ lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into ½” cubes
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon seasoned salt (like Lawry’s)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 med. onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried basil
2 teaspoons sugar
¾ to 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
Dash cayenne (optional)
½ cup white wine
1 – 6 oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
1 – 4 oz. can sliced black olives, drained
1 – 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 lb. dried pasta of choice (gemelli, rotini, or penne recommended)
Freshly grated parmesan cheese

1. In a large ziplock bag combine the flour, seasoned salt, and pepper. Shake to mix thoroughly. Add chicken to the bag, and shake to evenly coat pieces. In a large (5 quart) dutch oven or soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over med-hi heat. Once the oil is hot and shimmery, add chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown in spots, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

2. Reduce heat to medium, and add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil pan. Add onion and bell pepper and sauté 5 minutes or until soft. Add garlic, paprika, herbs, sugar, salt, and cayenne to the pan, and cook stirring, 1 minute more.

3. Add wine to the pan and bring to a simmer before adding artichoke hearts, olives, browned chicken, and crushed tomatoes. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4. While sauce is cooking, boil the pasta. Before serving taste and adjust seasonings in the sauce. Top or toss pasta with sauce and freshly grated parmesan cheese. Mangia!

12 comments:

April Cavin said...

Great tips! It's like the trifecta of taste--

Tasty Eats At Home said...

Sounds wonderful. I think the acid part is something I've only recently learned. It seems as though if I'm cooking and something seems out of balance, most of the time, it needs acid. This is when things like tomatoes, lemon juice, etc are my friends!

Divina Pe said...

Looks delicious. Bravo Ginny on the balance of flavors.

Jessie said...

great flavors and very delicious! a perfect dinner meal

angela@spinachtiger said...

Those three words make a great post.

megan said...

just bookmarked this one. I've never made chicken cacciatore, but this seems like a great recipe to start out on!

carola said...

I make a great chicken cacciatore, but yours looks even better, but then your recipes are always better than anyone else's. Hope we see you some time soon..

Ginny Mahar said...

Grazie Food-G Fans! Thanks to you I made the Foodbuzz Top 9 today! Hooray!

Kim (@ Paper Apron) said...

Well done, Food-G! May your day in the sunshine go on forever! I am always intrigued at how an acid will take a tasty dish and take it to that next level of zen. Does zen have levels? Oh well, you know what I mean. I also love the olives, tomatoes and sugar compliments in this dish. Oh, and the photo! Love the setting sun over the deep blue lake and mountains. It's an alfresco dream.

Kiersten said...

I love making cacciatore, but I don't like the traditional ingredient of mushrooms. I am super excited to try yours with artichoke hearts... I never thought of that! Yum, yum, and YUM!

Karen said...

I had the salt and the fat, but it took a lot longer to figure out the acid part for me. Now white wine is my best friend ;) The recipe looks great, and it has my favorite spice, paprika. Bonus! :D

Margaret (Ciolek) Fay said...

On my last trip up to Saginaw, I had dinner with Amy (Lewis) Hoerauf. She made this recipe for dinner and it was FANTASTIC!!!

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