A History of the World in Five Menus by Howard Belton

I realize this might be considered cheating, as this book is not technically a literary work, but more of a social and cultural overview of food, with a historical bent. But it’s my blog and I’ll historical if I want to. Anyway, A History of the World in Five Menus was actually recommended to me by Amazon.com, after I purchased the marvelous tome A History of English Food, by the incomparable chef and TV personality Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame. Belton’s work, though somewhat more serious, details a history of food and cooking from five cultures that have essentially given the modern palate and menu its identity. It’s actually very much like reading a work of literature, because it is written in such a descriptive way. My mouth watered at most recipes and food descriptions – a sure indicator that it’s a great book on food.

Cover pic

The more I get into cooking and learn about the different methods, and from where those methods came – often as a way of using up food in the times before electricity and refrigeration – the more fascinated I am by the history of food itself. I think food itself IS culture and history and society and art and science, and all of those keystones that make up any civilization. Food is the primary thing that bonds all of our societies, no matter our differences in politics, religion, beliefs or anything else. We must, after all, eat to live and survive, and survival of our species is what is at the heart of our societies.

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My friends and family who know me know that I am a dab hand with the chicken. I can make the feathered fowl in more ways than I can count. I love and adore chicken. Aside from the fact that it is healthier, less fatty and in general better for you than red meat (particularly if you’re eating organic chicken, which is all I eat these days), to me, it just tastes better. It’s the taste of home and comfort. My memories of my childhood are, in general, not terribly happy, and my memories of my relationship with my mother are even less so. That being said, I do have a very pleasant memory of a meal she made when I was around 8 or 9. For all her other shortcomings, my mother was a terrific cook, and the meal she made, simple fried chicken and mashed potatoes, tasted so wonderful. It was a rare meal that no one was yelling or mad about something, and that is probably why this memory – and the food associated -stand out in my memory as a pleasant event and probably why I have such positive associations with chicken. I hate spinach noodles………but that’s another story.  When I got into my 30s and began seriously learning to cook and developing my palate, one of the first things I ever cooked was a chicken dish. It came out delicious, and was so simple to make and yet so impressive to those who ate it, that it completely took the fear and apprehension out of cooking. I’ve been a home cook ever since, and my fallback meal is the poultry.

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Belton devotes an entire chapter to the humble, yet absolutely divine, chicken cacciatore. Chicken cacciatore, which means “hunter’s chicken,” is an Italian dish as old as time, and is somewhat of a joke, because it obviously is meant as a pointed reference to the fact that the hunter DID NOT catch anything for the pot, hence the need to cook up a chicken. The hunter’s wife no doubt either mocked him or cursed him the entire way to the chicken coop, while she swiftly strangled the bird, plucked its feathers, and eviscerated it to make it ready for that evening’s meal.

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“I find the whole idea of ‘hunter’s chicken’ amusing, because it is obviously a witticism  for those hunters who fail to catch anything. From Apicius onwards, there are many chicken dishes in Italian cookbooks, so it is not surprising that there are many variants of chicken cacciatore. Mine has chicken thighs and breasts, whole tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms (some omit these), onions, garlic, capers, olive oil, white wine, chicken stock, basil, oregano, salt and pepper.”

This is the method that worked for me, being a combination of tips and recipes from sources such as Nigella Lawson’s recipe in her book Nigella Express, Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes, and a recipe torn out of an old newspaper that I found in one of my Nana Jean’s old cookery books from the 1960s, which I got when she died. Pretty cool to find that bit of history in one of my cherished books!

Ingredients

2-3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 generous tablespoon butter
1 red onion, finely chopped
12-15 cloves of garlic, finely minced
2 ribs celery, finely diced
1/2 tablespoon of each dried herb – thyme, parsley, rosemary, and oregano

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25 baby carrots, sliced lengthwise in half

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1/2 cup sliced green olives (or black if that’s your preference. I like the green for color.)
2 packets sliced mushrooms. I used sliced white, but bellas are also good.
2 bell peppers of any color, thinly sliced.
3/4 cup of capers, drained but not rinsed
10-12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (yes, I know purists say to brown the chicken skin for flavor, but I find it makes the dish way too greasy)
2 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes, including juice
1 1/2 cups red wine. I used Ruffino Chianti, but any red or drinkable white will do.
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 tomato bouillon cube
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup of flour

Method

Heat the oven to 325 F.

Add olive oil and butter to a large, heavy-bottomed pot that can go in the oven safely. I used my treasured red cast-iron enamel 5-quart pot that I can barely lift, but for this dish, I made the sacrifice. Oh my arms.

Finely dice your onion, garlic and celery, and add to the melted oil/butter. Add in your dried herbs and stir until the scent of the onion and herbs wafts up and tickles your nose. Add in your sliced baby carrots, sliced peppers, and mushrooms, and saute for about 10 minutes on medium low.2016-02-28 15.24.38_resized

At this point, season your chicken thighs with salt and pepper, and add to the pot full of vegetables, letting the chicken brown a little bit. Pour over your two cans of crushed tomatoes, the wine and the chicken broth, and stir again to combine and mix well. Make sure your chicken is completely covered by the winey/brothy/tomatoey liquid.

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Add the capers and olives and the two bouillon cubes, stir again for luck, cross your fingers and put the entire heavy-ass pot into the oven, to cook low and slow for 3 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more wine if needed.

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At about 3 hours into cooking, remove about a cup of the divine-smelling juice from the pot, add to a small saucepan, slowly sift in about a half-cup of flour, and create a beautiful ruby-colored roux that will help thicken the cacciatore sauce and add to the already-heavenly tasting flavors. Stir the roux into the pot, combining with the chicken, tomatoes and all the other goodies. Cover and return to the oven for another hour or two. Long and slow is the way to go with this dish. The chicken thighs can be cooked over a long period of time and never get dry or stringy, which is why I only use thigh meat in cooking.

Breathe a sigh of relief that the lifting phase is done for now, and pour a glass of wine to celebrate the fact that you CAN lift something heavy without help! Woo hoo!

At the 4.5 hour mark, turn the oven off and leave the dish in the oven for about 20 minutes, to slowly cool off. Remove from the oven, take off the lid, give yourself a pat on the back for making something so delicious and such a part of tradition, history and culture, and eat!

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Bellissima!

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