Some smells assault while others delight. And sometimes we don’t even have to smell a meal to know we’d do something rash just to get a taste. That’s the case with Arlene and Kelly’s chicken cacciatore and polenta. We’d cross a pothole-laden street filled with rattle snakes just to grab a bite of this dish. Lucky for you (and us!) we didn't have to. Instead, we got to spend an afternoon with the mom/daughter team taking in technique while getting caught up on why this recipe lives in the cooking repertoire of a family who asserts their “whole life is around food.” Back when West Sacramento, CA was unincorporated and prohibition was in effect, a Northern Italian couple immigrated to Broderick. Noni, Arlene’s grandmother, had a tough time fitting it; she neither spoke nor wrote English, and she couldn’t understand what would drive Americans to ban her beloved wine, for “in Italy even the babies get wine; everybody drinks wine.” Ironically, wine brought Noni from the margins of society, unable to communicate with her community, to having a place of her own once she began fermenting the libation in her own basement. Arlene shares the story while retracting it at the same time and finally settles on “The Kennedy’s did it for goodness sakes—nothing happened to them.” Something did happen for Noni though, from bootlegging she earned a living and developed an interesting clientele: judges, police officers, everyone lined up to sip Noni’s vintage.
Noni’s success enabled her to create a nice home for her family that afforded her the space she needed to carry on her traditions. Each day after school, Arlene would arrive to scents that tugged her, nose-first, into the kitchen; not only was chicken cacciatore a regular meal contender, but a filled soup pot and lush salad accompanied each meal. One day, Arlene asked her grandmother how to cook. Noni replied, “When you get home after school tomorrow, we’ll start.” One could argue the lessons paid off because Arlene’s family swears she’s the best at cooking Noni’s dishes.
Kelly, it seems, was destined to take her place in front of the stove as well, for “she was making pudding at four years-old” and began her role as her mother’s partner in making chicken cacciatore while she was still in grammar school. Even though the partnership gets a little tangled in the kitchen at times, as most mother/daughter relations tend to do, over the hiss of frying chicken, Arlene calls, “She was baking cakes at twelve, made the best chocolate cakes.” Her maternal pride impossible to hide.
The two women have been teaming up on this dish for years and split tasks according to who prefers to do what, but Kelly lets us know her mom “likes to oversee” explaining that when it comes to polenta “all [Kelly gets] to do is stir.” Arlene pays the quip no mind as she whirls a spoon through thick creaminess. The secret to polenta, she suggests, is easy: just cook “the hell out of it.” The two banter about cheese and decide “you could almost use anything you want” though they recommend monterey jack, provolone and lots of parmesan. Kelly slips in “I’ve seen her use cheddar,” but Arlene’s unfazed. Teasing is a part of the deal in this family, but what matters most is Arlene and Kelly are at the stove together preparing a meal for children and grandchildren just as Noni prepared it for them.
CHICKEN CACCIATORE & POLENTA - Perini Family Recipe
(Serves 4-6 approximately)
1 whole cut-up chicken 1/8 cup olive oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 1 TB Italian Seasoning ½ Bunch Italian Parsley, coarsley chopped 1 Carrot, grated 1 Celery stalk, finely chopped 4 Cloves garlic, finely chopped 15 oz Tomato sauce 24 oz water 8 oz mushrooms, sliced ½-3/4 cup red wine
Coat chicken pieces in flour, garlic salt and pepper to taste. Brown in oil on medium-high for approximately 6 minutes on each side. In the meantime, heat some olive oil up in a stock pot. Once oil is hot add garlic, onions, carrots and celery and saute until they have cooked down a little bit and softened. Add the tomato sauce, water and red wine. Season with Italian seasoning, garlic salt and pepper to taste. Let this come up to a simmer and then add the sliced mushrooms. Simmer for a few minutes and then add chicken pieces to sauce and simmer for one and a half hours on low heat until chicken is tender and sauce is rich and flavorful. Serve alongside or over the polenta (recipe following).
3 cups yellow cornmeal 6 cups cold water 2 TB olive oil Garlic salt to taste 12 oz grated Monterey Jack cheese 3 oz grated Mozzarella cheese 3 oz finely grated Parmesan cheese (the cheese measurements are approximate in this recipe and can be modified to suit your taste, these ladies LOVE their cheese!)
Add the 6 cups of cold water to polenta and stir until the polenta is smooth and without any lumps. Put this mixture into a heavy bottomed saucepan and cook on high heat until polenta starts to bubble. At this point, turn heat down and add 3 more cups of water progressively as polenta slowly cooks down and absorbs water, becoming thick. After the polenta has cooked through and is soft and creamy, add grated Monterey Jack cheese (about two big handfuls) then add the Mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Stir to melt cheese, add garlic salt or sea salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle fresh parsley to serve. Enjoy!