Learning to cook in Italy over the past 14 years hasn’t been so much about learning recipes – although I’ve learned many – rather, it has been about ways of cooking things.
The best and most useful of these ways have often been the most blindingly obvious and endlessly variable. A friend describes them as the cooking equivalent – pseuds’ corner, I know – of a musician learning a memorable tune that can be played in many styles.
Twice-cooking vegetables, for example – something Italians refer to as ripassare or strascinare – boiling, draining and then dragging the cooked vegetable around a frying pan with olive oil, garlic and chilli. It is a method that can be applied to almost every vegetable, and especially to spinach, chard, turnip tops and the broccoli and cauliflower family. It is way that can be varied by the addition of anchovies (melted to a paste), or red chilli, pancetta, a handful of cherry tomatoes, capers or olives. Vegetables cooked this way can be a side dish topped with breadcrumbs, tossed with pasta (in which case, use the green-tinted, faintly flavoured vegetal water to cook the pasta), put in a pie, or piled on toast.
Or the hunter’s chicken principle: brown joints, add seasoning, drown in wine and cook at a lazy blip, burp, until tender and sticky. You can vary it with herbs, add tomato, red peppers or potatoes, and finish with olives and vinegar. Or the browned chicken can be turned into today’s dish, recently eaten on a trip across Italy’s Apennines (during a blizzard) to the sparsely populated yet plainly beautiful region of Le Marche: chicken with lemon and egg sauce.
I have come across almost every possible cut for hunter’s chicken – whole, spatchcocked, quartered, jointed into eight or 12 pieces, thighs, bones in, bones out, breasts cut into strips … But I particularly like two of these ways.
The first uses a whole chicken: pollo alla moda di macerata, as it is described (and idiosyncratically illustrated) in the excellent Marche edition of La Cucina delle Regioni d’Italia. For this method, you first brown, then roast a whole chicken – covered, so it produces lots of juices – in the oven. Once the chicken is cooked, you cut or tear it into bits, put them on a platter, then mix the egg and lemon into the hot juices left in the tin, and pour over the meat.
The second way is with pieces of chicken, which can be done entirely on the stovetop. While you can make the sauce in the pan, you risk scrambling the egg. I learned a useful way from a chef called Sara Levi. You mix two egg yolks, the zest and juice of a lemon, some salt and pepper, and a handful of finely chopped parsley in a big bowl, then, using a slotted spoon, lift in the hot cooked joints and toss. There’s a knack to this that Italians use for tossing pasta: a sliding jolt or flip away from you, then an abrupt stop, so the sauce underneath rises like a tidal wave, up and over the joints. Or you can stir with a spoon. Either way, the aim is that tossing the chicken in the sauce should thicken the egg and lemon into a rich and silken sauce that clings to the meat. Tip on to a platter, then scrape over any juices left in the bottom of the pan.
Chicken with lemon and egg
Prep 10 min
Cook 45 min
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
1.2kg chicken joints or thighs, or 800g boned-out thighs, each cut into three pieces
Salt and black pepper
1 pinch red chilli flakes
Juice of 1½ lemons
250ml chicken or vegetable stock, or white wine
2 egg yolks
Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
1 heaped tbsp chopped parsley
In a large saute pan, melt the butter and oil over a medium-low flame, and fry the onion until soft and very pale golden.
Working in batches, if necessary, add the chicken, skin-side down to the pan and brown, then turn and brown the other side.
Season with salt, pepper and chilli flakes, pour over the juice of half a lemon, the stock or wine, bring to a bubble, then reduce to a gentle simmer. At this point, if you are using a jointed chicken, you might like to lift out the breast – return it to the pot in the last five minutes of cooking time.
Cover with a lid, and cook for 30 minutes if you are using boned thighs, 45 minutes if you are using jointed chicken. The chicken should be tender, with almost all the liquid evaporated, apart from a few sticky juices. Remove the pot from the heat.
In a large bowl, beat together the yolks, zest, remaining lemon juice and the parsley. Using a slotted spoon, lift the hot chicken into the bowl, then toss energetically: the heat and movement will thicken the egg and lemon into a rich, satin-like sauce that will coat the surface of the chicken.
Tip on to a warm plate, pour and scrape over any juices from the pan on top, and serve with boiled potatoes or buttered rice and a green salad.
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