Chicken scarpariello is one of those perfect Tuesday-night meals: packed with flavor, relatively healthy, easy, and made in a single skillet.
I'm always wary of posting new recipes for Italian dishes. We've all had run-ins with the Authenticity Police—that organization whose mission is to preserve the sacred recipes of each member's specific grandmother. I haven't done a formal study, but anecdotally, I can say that the severity of their response seems to be directly correlated with the recipe source's proximity to the Mediterranean.
Luckily, by all accounts, pollo allo scarpariello—"shoemaker's chicken"—is Italian-American in origin, so hopefully I'm off the hook. It's a good thing, too, because as existing recipes go, this one is all over the map. Some, like this one from Deborah Mele of Italian Food Forever, bathe the chicken in a lemon-based sauce. Others, like this one from Mario Batali, include potatoes and bell peppers in a wine sauce. Most, but not all, include some form of Italian sausage.
My version of the dish stems from the first one I tasted, which was this recipe (warning: paywall), developed by my colleague Sandra Wu while I was working at Cook's Illustrated. It's pretty much in line with the versions I've tasted at various Italian-American restaurants around the Northeast: chicken flavored with pickled cherry peppers and sausage, in a sweet-hot-sour sauce. You could also look at it as a brother of my Braised Chicken With Cabbage and Bacon, with some flavor makeovers. The technique is nearly the same—that is to say, easy.
It's punchy, it's not for the timid, but it's ultimately very simple to make, requiring just a single straight-sided sauté pan or Dutch oven, about 25 minutes on the stovetop, and a half hour in the oven.
Scarpariello is often made with a whole chicken cut into eight or 12 pieces. After trying it that way a couple times, I switched over to using only bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or legs. Breasts tend to dry out much more easily, and it's a bit too fiddly for a simple weeknight meal to fish out the breast pieces as they finish cooking, then add them all back in. Chicken thighs are packed with connective tissue, which means that they're very forgiving to cook. Even if you accidentally overcook them, they stay nice and juicy. Thighs are also great because that connective tissue breaks down and converts into gelatin, giving the sauce better body and flavor.
To start, I brown the chicken thighs deeply, with their skin side down, in order to get them crisp and to start building up fond—the tasty browned bits in the bottom of the pan—for my sauce base. Once the chicken is browned, I remove it and add a few whole Italian sausages to brown. Some recipes call for removing the sausage from its casings; I prefer to brown the sausage with the casing intact, then slice it into chunky pieces before braising it along with the chicken.
Once the sausage is browned, I add an onion and a bell pepper and sauté them until tender, then add a few sliced cloves of garlic and a couple tablespoons of minced fresh sage leaves. In the Cook's Illustrated version of this recipe, Sandra found that using a combination of a bell pepper and sliced pickled cherry peppers offered the best flavor, and I concur. You can use either sweet or hot pickled peppers, depending on your tolerance. (Using hot can make this dish spicy.)
To get the sweet-and-sour flavor, I tried using straight-up vinegar mixed with sugar. That worked pretty well, but I realized as I was putting my cherry peppers back in the fridge that I was wasting an opportunity: The peppers come packed in a vinegary liquid that would otherwise get dumped down the drain.* Why not use it in my sauce? I tried it, and it worked a treat. The only thing to be careful of is that it's salty, so taste the dish before adding any extra seasoning at the end! A cup of dry white wine lends some complexity and brightness to the sauce, while chicken stock ensures that the pan doesn't get too dry during its pit stop in the oven.
* Or maybe used to brine chicken breasts for fried chicken sandwiches!
Once the vegetables are softened and the foundation for the sauce is formed, I nestle the sausage and chicken back into the pan, making sure the chicken skin stays above the liquid, then stick the whole thing in a 350°F (175°C) oven to braise for about 30 minutes. In this time, the chicken will tenderize and release juices into the pan as its skin crisps up even further. Meanwhile, the sausage cooks through, and the liquid reduces until it has the body and texture of a perfect pan sauce. The only work you have to do is wait. Maybe pour yourself a glass or two of the remaining wine.
But make sure to save some of that wine for the actual dinner. Or, just open another bottle. After all, this Tuesday night is not gonna entertain itself.
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