When I first met Maris I was a sophomore in high school and she was in theology class with me and I thought she was weird because she always, always, always came to school with burn marks all over her arms from hot oil. And when I would ask her what happened she would shrug and say, “hot oil splatters,” like this was a normal occurrence and I had nothing else to say except, “Ok.”
And then! When we were almost grown ups, living in our own apartments, she started cooking like a real person. I was eating roasted squash for dinner and Maris was eating pot roast. I was buying Trader Joe’s single servings for-the-single-girl meals, and Maris was baking her very own layer cake. She has inspired me in lots and lots of ways, but particularly in the kitchen. She has always made cooking real meals seem normal and not like something only fancy people do. And you’ll see why after reading this post. Maris just does stuff, impressive stuff, like it ain’t no thang. And I’m always ready to cheer her on, with my jaw on the floor.
When it comes to me and the kitchen, there are a few things you should know. First, the women in my family are amazing cooks (the men, not so much). Second, I’m pretty competitive, even with myself. Third, I have a tendency to burn myself… a lot. When you put all of these facts together, you end up with someone who loves to cook, who tries to out-do herself whenever possible (I start planning the menu for Thanksgiving every year at least a month in advance) and who occasionally has a massive disaster in the kitchen that involves fires, spills, food explosions, you name it. Hi! I’m Maris.
When Lauren asked me to write a cooking guest post, my immediate reaction was equal parts excitement and nerves- I decided that the recipe I chose would have to be amazing, would have to be impressive, and it HAD to be perfect. I obsessed over recipes for weeks, no joke. But the recipe I finally settled on? Was a recipe handed to me by my mom when I left for college. Way back in the day, before leaving for college, my mom took it upon herself to put together a little cookbook for me that included some of her go-to dishes as well as some of my favorite recipes.
This, combined with my handwritten copy of my grandmother’s entire cookbook, has pretty much been the jumping off point for my cooking education. I love making these recipes (be it my grandmother’s famed dinner rolls or my mom’s chicken enchiladas) because each recipe has a specific memory, a specific time or feeling or person associated with it. And, for that same reason, I have avoided certain recipes for fear of messing them up. So, with Lauren’s encouragement, I decided to tackle one of these.
You can find Chicken Cacciatore recipes pretty much anywhere. There are a million different versions out there, but none as good as my mother’s recipe. This was the recipe that my sister always requested for her birthday dinner, and the recipe that would make everyone hover around the kitchen in anticipation. It isn’t technically difficult, but for some reason I had a bit of a mental block with this one. I would also like to point out that: 1) I did call my mom from the grocery store, and 2) I deviated out from the recipe a bit, which ended up working out perfectly!
This recipe starts with a whole chicken, cut up in pieces, browned in hot oil and butter. Deviation #1: it was just me for dinner, so I only used three chicken legs instead of the entire chicken. Verdict: didn’t make a difference in the flavor and I didn’t waste food! Success! Also, let me remind you about my afore-mentioned tendency to burn myself. Hot oil + butter = ouch. One thing I would point out with this, is to let the chicken get nice and brown before removing it from the pot. The oil always scares me enough that I take it out prematurely, and I think letting the chicken develop a bit more of a crust would have kept them even juicier. Next time I’ll test that theory.
The sauce contains quite a lot of veggies (hello mushrooms, peppers, onions, and garlic), which makes me feel virtuous. The saucy part (heehee saucy) has tomato paste, wine, water, herbs, and chicken bouillion.
Deviation #2: the amount of liquids that the recipe called for didn’t seem like enough, so I doubled it. Verdict: I, for one, love me some sauce. It was the right choice. And, I called my mom to confirm, and guess what? She doubles it too. Success!
After adding in the mess o’ingredients, you plop that chicken right back in there and let it simmer away while you get your pasta ready. Here’s another area where I was weird about this dish- I could only make it if I had the EXACT noodles that my mom always used. Noodles that are apparently difficult to locate in Chicago. I finally found them, and I swear the sun opened up and angels started singing right in the middle of Whole Foods. Anyway, once the kitchen smelled awesome and I was nearing the end of the simmering period, I prepared my treasured noodles.
By the time everything was ready, everything smelled like it should, looked like it should, and (with the exception of some oil burns) had gone off without a hitch. My dinner-for-one was delicious, and even though this dish wasn’t nearly as complicated as some of my previous considerations, I was ridiculously proud of myself. By the end of the night, I had my comfort food, it felt like home, and I had only spilled a little bit of sauce on my shirt. Verdict: success!
The competitive side of me still wishes I had done something a little bit more complicated (I was eyeballing a Julia Child recipe that involved setting things on fire… that could have made for a hilarious story as well as delicious french food), but there wouldn’t have been a story behind it besides “that looked complicated and I wanted to show I could do it”. Next time I’ll make the braised chicken with leeks, but this time I’m glad I made something with some meaning.