A few years ago I read this essay written by parent and food writer Jenny Rosenstrach that has stuck with me ever since. In it, she discusses the unavoidable discomfort of watching your children go through all of the social let downs and conflicts that are a natural piece of going to school and growing up. Though at the time I read it the girls were at the stage where problems amongst friends could be solved in a few straight forward steps, we are slowly moving into the next stage; the stage where we won’t be able to parent away hurt or sadness or the feeling of being left out or lonely. And though in my head I know this to be a natural and necessary part of life, I already find it preemptively heartbreaking.The point that Jenny highlights so beautifully in her essay, by way of her own mother’s blunt-yet-tender advice, is that the best thing we can offer our children after an unfix-able day, is comfort.
“You just make sure that when those girls walk in that door every day,” she said, “they never doubt that home is the most comforting place for them to be. That is what you can do.” …I also started thinking more carefully about what I served at those family dinners and which dishes shouted “I Love You” the loudest.”
Two weeks ago when my mom was visiting she made one of those ‘I love you’ dishes for us. She’s made it for us several times now; the first being after Nell was born and she wanted to fill up our tiny flat-sized refrigerator with food we could heat and eat one-handed. In fact, she’s made it for me since high school, a simple yet satisfying tomatoey chicken and red wine dish, versatile enough to be served alongside creamy mashed potatoes or polenta, over rice or egg noodles, or even on its own provided there was good bread to soak up the sauce. It gave me such pleasure to watch her make it with little Isla standing next to her on her little step stool, anxiously awaiting tasks to help. I recalled the challah Mom would serve with the chicken at our own family dinners growing up, bread perfectly squidgy and soft for dunking. It was then Mom’s turn to revel with me in the joy of watching as our two little girls lapped up each bite of tender chicken and drop of sauce like I used to, its comfort passed down and equally doubled in the process. Last week, when Mom (Mimi as the girls call her) had flown back home, both Nell and Isla each separately asked me when we would be having Mimi Chicken again. I made a mental note; it seemed this was not just my mom’s ‘I love you’ dish to me, but to all of us.
As per usual, my first instinct when reading a recipe is to tinker with it. In this instance I’ve kept that tinkering to a real minimum, aware that the comfort and memories are built around this very specific taste of the dish as is. Changing it too much would risk take away from the comfort of the dish; the entire reason for making it.
Mimi’s Chicken Cacciatore
3lbs or 1.5kg skinless chicken thighs, bone in
1/2cup or 64g plain white flour seasoned with 1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 yellow peppers, roughly chopped
1 aubergine/eggplant, peeled, roughly chopped, salted and drained
2 cloves garlic, minced or finely diced
2 tins chopped tinned tomatoes
1 23oz/680ml bottle passata
sea salt to taste (roughly 1-2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 cup/glass red wine (one decent enough to pour yourself a glass of afterwards or during!)
Bring your chicken out of the fridge and bring it up to room temperature. Meanwhile, prep all of your vegetables first so you’re ready to go; dice your onion, chop your pepper and aubergine/eggplant, peel your garlic and chop (you can mince it last minute if you opt for this instead.) Tip your aubergine into a sieve over the sink and sprinkle over a good pinch or two of sea salt, then mix well with your hands. This will help to release extra moisture in your aubergine and help keep it from taking on a bitter aftertaste.
Combine the dried oregano and a pinch of salt into your flour and dredge all of your chicken pieces. In a heavy bottomed large pot over a medium high heat, add your olive oil until it forms a thin layer completely covering the bottom surface. Once hot, add your chicken pieces meaty bit-side down and spread out so they have room to brown. You’ll likely have to do this in 2-3 batches depending on the size of your pot. Once golden on one side, flip and quickly cook the other side before removing onto a clean plate. Continue until all of your chicken has been browned.
Add a teaspoon more oil, heat and follow with your onions and peppers, cooking whilst continuously moving until softened. Quickly rinse, squeeze and pat dry your aubergine pieces before adding in your your pot, stirring a few times before following with your minced garlic. Sprinkle and season with allspice and thyme then continue to cook your vegetables for a further few minutes until soft before pouring in the tins of tomatoes and passata. Stir to fully combine, then gently snuggle your chicken back into the sauce.
Reduce heat to a simmer and leave uncovered for 10 minutes, pour in about a half cup of red wine, give one or two good stirs then cover mostly with a lid and let simmer for about 90 minutes or until sauce has reduced and thickened and chicken is practically falling off the bone.
Up to you whether or not you remove the bones before serving. Just make sure to serve with extra bread to mop up the delicious sauce.