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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Chicken Scarpariello with Sausage: In memory of our Grandfathers!

Chicken Scarpariello with Sausage, or Shoemaker's Chicken

I have had this dish in many forms but my favorite was at a little pizzeria in Rye, NY.  The owner called his dish Chicken with Vinegar Peppers, and he did not even have it on the menu, it was just one of his specialities. All the other variations I have tasted in other restaurants were okay, but most were dry, or lacked taste, but when I sampled this humble dish in that little restaurant, I knew I had to try it someday and make it my own.

I did a bit of research, and like many Italian-American dishes, this one is of uncertain origin.  The word scarpariello means shoemaker, so this dish is really called Shoemaker's Chicken. This brings to mind another recipe in an earlier blog, Chicken Cacciatore, or Hunter's Chicken.

Simple but deliciously intense in flavor, this dish was considered so inexpensive to make, that "even a shoemaker can enjoy it,", according to one source, and versions of it arose in Italian immigrant America, supposedly created  by the hard working men who had left their families behind, and who were homesick for the flavors of their homeland. This  brought to mind the stories I had heard about my own grandfather when he first came to this country in the 1920's, all by himself, leaving his family behind as so many other men did.  I imagine him in his tenement apartment, sharing it with many other young men, at day's end, trying to create a palatable dish with the strange and foreign ingredients found in their new country. Most of the money they made, which was very little indeed, went back to their families in Italy. Grandpa Thomas had a wife and four children back home to support. Grandpa, by the time I got to know him, was indeed the cook of the household, except for Sundays and holidays, when my grandmother made her special dishes and her gravy and fragrant meatballs (which she used to hide in the pantry after frying to keep us from stealing them before they made their way into the tomato sauce!) My grandfather cooked all the other meals, and now I realize how and where he must have honed his skills.
Gathering the Ingredients

I have to give credit to my friend and colleague and fellow foodie Lauren DeGasperis, who responded to my request for ideas for my blog. Chicken Scarp (yes, it has a nickname), what a great idea, I thought! Who makes that? No one at home, to my knowledge...thanks Lauren!

I had never made this dish before, and consulted many sources, including a recipe from Rao's restaurant, Lidia and some others. They were all pretty similar, with some variations. It was chicken, sausage, fresh and marinated peppers, onion and garlic with aromatic herbs, in a tangy, spicy sauce flavored with the vinegar water from the jar of marinated peppers, white wine and lemon juice. One thing they all agreed upon: it is all in the sauce, which should be pungent and flavorful. Most of the recipes called for chicken broth, but I substituted  Better Than Bouillion, chicken flavor, which is a great find: a teaspoon adds tons of flavor without adding to the reduction time.

A note about heat:  This dish can be made hot or sweet.  I used sweet sausages, but hot cherry peppers, the vinegar water from the hot peppers, and red pepper flakes. It was spicy hot but not insanely hot. If you are a hot hot spicy food aficionado, you might want to try hot sausages.  If you do not care for hot food, use the sweet sausages, sweet cherry peppers, and their juice.  However, a hint of heat adds a subtlety of flavor, so I would keep the red pepper flakes.

 I opted to use boneless chicken breast, but boneless, skinless chicken thighs could be substituted. Most of the recipes called for chicken on the bone, however I think boneless, if cooked correctly, is easier and prettier to serve. To avoid the inevitable dryness of chicken breast, I opted to first dredge the cubed pieces in flour, and quickly saute them olive oil in a very hot cast iron  pan. Browning  the pieces quickly, they did not overcook and remained succulent,  moist and delicious. The flour gave body to the sauce, which adhered to both  the meat and the vegetables. If thigh meat is used, it would even be more moist due to the higher fat content.

Much neater this way!
I also opted to boil the sausages, which reduces some of the fat and allows for easier and neater slicing. I have been preparing sausages this way for years, trying to reduce the fat in. But there is another benefit, not only are they less fattening, they are easier to handle. Have you ever tried to slice a raw sausage? What a mess! As you can see, the slices I made look very pretty and are easier to quickly saute!

Here is the recipe for Chicken Scarpariello with Sausages. If desired, it can be halved for smaller families, smaller appetites, and fewer leftovers!

           "Shoemaker's Chicken"


1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (divided)
6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves or 12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Flour for dredging, seasoned with salt and pepper, 2 teaspoons or equivalent oregano (see below)
6 sweet or hot boiled Italian sausages, fennel or plain, large sized, cut into 1/2 inch rounds
1 red and 1 yellow pepper (or color of your choice!) cut into strips
I large spanish onion or two regular yellow onions
4 cloves garlic
1/2 16 ounce jar hot or sweet cherry peppers in vinegar, sliced thin or cut in half
1 16 ounce jar sweet red roasted peppers in vinegar, cut into strips
1 cup vinegar water from cherry peppers
1 cup white wine
red pepper flakes to taste
1 teaspoon "Better Than Boullion" boullion concentrate (chicken flavor)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 sprigs dried oregano (use Sicilian Oregeno, available at specialty markets), the highest quality you can find
juice and zest from one lemon
Fresh parsley

Deliciously but quickly browned
1. Cut chicken chunks into 2 inch cubes, dredge in seasoned flour
These also cook very fast!
2. Heat a large frying pan,  heavy or cast iron, and add 1/4 cup olive oil. When sufficiently hot (when a drop of water sizzles) quickly fry the chicken chunks.  Do not crowd the pan, and do not overcook. Once they are golden on both sides, remove to a platter lined with paper towels.  This will happen quickly.  You might have to do 3 or 4 batches, depending on the size of your frying pan. Clean out the pan if you see that the flour coming off the chicken starts to overbrown. Clean out the pan for the next step.
3. Boil the sausages, until they are white and firm, about 7 to 10 minutes. Let cool, slice into rounds. Fry until brown, do not overbrown, it also happens quickly. Keep the flame low to render the fat out of the sausages.  Mix the chicken and sausages together, and set aside.
Peppers, onions, garlic and spices!
4. Slice fresh and jarred roasted peppers into strips, slice onions, slice garlic, and cut cherry peppers into strips or half.  Heat the frying pan and add the 1/4 cup remaining olive oil to the sausage fat.  Quickly cook the vegetables until softened and caramelized, and add liquids, Better Than Bouillion, lemon juice and zest.  Cook down the liquids for about 10 minutes on a medium-low flame to reduce, add the chicken and sausages and heat through. At this point, you might need a bigger pan..I toss it all into a wok!  (as Felix Unger would say to Oscar Madison, "You're not mixing Chinese and Italian again!" ) Correct for seasonings, place into a large bowl or platter, and sprinkle fresh parsley over all.

Yes, I used a wok for this Italian American dish!
The mixture of liquids, the bouillion, herbs and flour from the chicken creates a thick, flavorful sauce: as I have read in most of the recipes, the flavor is all in the sauce! Also mixing the meat with the vegetables only to heat it through ensures that the chicken is not overcooked and remains moist and juicy.

My family absolutely loved this dish.  It may be served with rice or pasta, or just some hot Italian bread and a green salad with viniagrette. Enjoy!

                                                              Buon appetito!