PUDDASTRI CA PIPIRATA: POLLASTRI CON PEPERATA (Chicken with a sauce containing pepper and spices)

These beautiful chickens (and dogs) belong to friends. The chicken with the speckled feathers around her neck (in the front of the top photo/ and in the second photo at the bottom) won 1st prize at the Royal Melbourne show in 2009.
My friends would not dream of eating their chickens.

In the hot weather,  I sometimes prepare a chicken salad, adapted from a Bugialli recipe called Insalata di cappone. I have made this salad over many years – the book was published in 1984 and Bugialli says that his recipe comes from a restaurant in Mantova (Mantua) and is the typical sweet and sour dish from the Renaissance period. In his recipe the capon is poached in broth and then pickled in the marinade for at least twelve hours. It is served cold.

Several years ago I found a very similar recipe in a book about Southern Italian cooking. The writer had eaten Piperata chicken in Trapani (Sicily) and acknowledges that it was probably not a traditional recipe. It contains chicken breasts and along with other things – zest and juice from a lemon, pine nuts and currants – the same flavours used in Bugialli’s recipe.

Making the Sicilian dish with chicken breasts indicates that it is a modern recipe, but most of the flavours could be Sicilian – the agrodolce (sweet and sour) taste and flavourings, the lemon juice, the peel, the currants, the pine nuts. The agrodolce and use of spices is attributed to the Arabs, but also to the Romans, and both of these peoples were in Sicily. Strong sauces were often used to disguise spoiled food, especially meat, and vinegar and sugar have been used throughout time as a preservative (Caponata contains vinegar and sugar and in ancient times was a useful dish to take to sea by fishermen because of its long lasting properties).

Could the recipe be Sicilian?I began to investigate the origins of the recipes.

I began my research with pipirata. From this, to piperatum, and in ancient Rome this was the “peppered broth” or “the water in which beef has been cooked in”. The broth contained garum and pepper.

Garum was made through the crushing and fermentation in brine of the innards of fish. It originally came from the Greeks and was very popular with the ancient Romans. Garum was a seasoning preferred to salt and when added to other ingredients like vinegar, wine, oil and pepper it became a condiment used for meat, fish and vegetables – a type of fish sauce similar to the Asian fish sauces of countries like Thailand and Vietnam.

Pevere in the Veneto (dialect spoken in the region of Northern Italy) means ‘pepper’ and peverada is a sauce used as a common condiment in modern,  Italian cooking (mostly northern Italian). It is a sauce for game, excellent with duck or poultry and roasted meats. The most well-known peverada originated in the Veneto area and it usually contains garlic, oil, pepper, parsley, lemon juice, vinegar, livers (from the fowl being cooked), soppressa (salame), anchovies and pomegranate juice. The ingredients are minced and then sautéed adding the liver last. These ingredients are gently poached in broth. Lastly lemon juice, pomegranate juice and wine vinegar are added, and the sauce is reduced.

The sweet and sour types of sauces were also popular with the French.

In Mediavel times, especially in the cooking of France most kitchens would have used vinegar or verjuice, lemon juice, or the juice of sour oranges, or pomegranate to add acidity to sauces. This would have been balanced with sweet ingredients, sugar or honey, dried fruit or concentrated grape juice or sweet wine. Meat was also preserved in a mixture of stock and vinegar. The sweet and sour taste and the use of strong spices were also popular in Renaissance times.  Chicken and the prized spices used in both recipes were once rare and expensive and the dish is not likely to be considered a poor person’s dish. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the nobility of southern Italy and Sicily employed a monsu’ – a monsieur or French-trained cook who could have used elaborate sauces to dress game or roast fowl.

I also found a recipe for Chicken in pomegranate juice in Barbara Santich’s book: The original Mediterranean Cuisine, medieval recipes for today.

In the recipe, the chicken is simmered in pomegranate juice and almond milk (made from blanched almonds) and flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. In the accompanying text Santich states that Maxine Robinson has traced the origins of this dish to an Arab dish, the recipe probably arriving in western Europe through early translations of Arab dietetic writing and appearing in most early Mediterranean collections and also early thirteenth century Andalusian text.

Bugialli does not use pomegranate in his recipe, but I have sometimes decorated the dish with pomegranate seeds. I have also used anchovies and both of these ingredients are popular in Sicilian cooking.

And just when I thought that the chicken salad dish could be Sicilian after all, I found one recipe called Jadduzzedi e Puddastri ca sarsa pipirata in Pino Correnti’s book: Il libro d’oro della cucina e dei vini di Sicilia.

Correnti describes the dish as young chickens and roosters, pot roasted in oil, butter, bay leaves, rosemary, salt and pepper and deglazed with a little marsala (the dry variety). These were then served with a reduced salsa pipirata consisting of the following ingredients: vin cotto, broth flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and rosemary, grated lemon peel and pomegranate juice. Apparently this particular dish was appreciated by a noble in Palermo in the eighteenth century.  Unfortunately then Correnti  goes on to say that this dish was revealed to him by a medium, and that he has never found  any basis or documentation for this recipe.

I could not come to any definite conclusion – this dish does not seem to be clearly Sicilian or Montuan. All cuisines have cultural origins, but the cooking methods and flavours have altered and evolved throughout history to become what they are today.

Here is my version of Puddastri ca pipirata.

INGREDIENTS
chicken fillets, skinless or with skin. I use organic and depending on how large they are, estimate 1 per person.
The following recipe is sufficient for 6 people.

For the poaching liquid:
chicken stock, sufficient to cover the fillets (made beforehand)
celery, 2 stalks left whole
carrots, 3 young, scraped and left whole
onion,1 sliced into thick slices
spices, 5 whole cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, 6 pepper corns
bay leaves, 3
parsley, 4 sprigs
rosemary, 1sprig

For the marinade:
extra virgin olive oil, 1 cup
spices, 1/2  teaspoon of each, ground cloves and cinnamon (I used whole cloves once and watched my friends picking them out from their mouths – not a good feel),
bay leaves, 3- 4 (fresh leaves look great as well as doing their job)
chilly flakes or black pepper, to taste (I use plentyt)
sugar, a small teaspoon
salt, to taste
red wine vinegar 1/3 cup
lemon, the juice of 1, and the peel , peeled with a potato peeler and kept in strips so it can easily be removed.

For the salad:
celery, 2 of the tender stalks sliced thinly, and some of the light green leaves, chopped
cooked chicken and carrots
spring onions, 3 chopped or cut lengthwise into thin , short pieces
pine nuts, 3/4 cup
seedless muscatels (or raisins or currants), 3/4 cup previously soaked in a little wine or marsala

PROCESSES
Prepare this dish at least the day before you serve it – this allows the flavours in the marinade to achieve the required results.(I have learned through experience that this dish tastes even better if left to marinade for at least 24 hours).
Use a wide, shallow sauce pan which allows the fillets to be placed in a single layer (if possible). If the chicken is in a double layer, ensure that during the poaching process you swap the ones on top with the ones in the bottom layer to allow even cooking.

Prepare the poaching liquid – I really like to make this strongly flavoured.
Use sufficient chicken stock to cover the chicken fillets. (I usually have some stock in the fridge or stored in the freezer made with chicken with bones, carrot, onion and celery stick, a little salt, boiled and then reduced – see BRODO earlier post).
Strain the stock through a colander, empty it into the saucepan and to the stock, add the ingredients in for the poaching liquid listed above.
Bring the stock with added flavourings to the boil.
Place the fillets gently into this poaching liquid – it should just cover the fillets. Adding the meat to the hot stock will seal the meat and preserve the flavou. Adding the meat to the cold liquid will enrich the taste of the broth. Because the meat is the focus, add the chicken to the hot liquid.
Cover with a lid and bring slowly to the boil again on medium heat. Leave the chicken to poach gently for about 7 minutes (I do not like to overcook them – they need to be white in colour and when pricked with a fork still have some resistance).
Remove the pan from the heat and leave the chicken in the poaching liquid till cool – the chicken will keep on cooking in the poaching liquid and be kept moist till you are ready to marinade it.
Marinade: Mix all of the ingredients together in a container.
To assemble the salad:
I like to use a deep glass bowl to see the chicken and salad ingredients in layers.
Take out chicken fillets and cut each fillet into thick slices.
Strain the poaching liquid, discard the solids but keep the carrots – these can be sliced into batons and added to the salad.
Place the chicken fillets and carrots in layers and cover with a little marinade and other ingredients as you go. The lemon peel and bay leaves can be at the bottom of the dish and between the layers. Sprinkle pine nuts and drained dried muscatels, the spring onions, celery and carrots between the layers.
Top the whole dish with some of the cooled poaching liquid until all the chicken is covered (this will keep it moist and a good colour) and leave to pickle in the fridge. Shake the dish occasionally to amalgamate the flavours. Remove it from the fridge about an hour prior to serving.

Presentation
Prior to presenting the dish you may like to drain off some of the liquid to make it more manageable. Ensure that each person receives some of the other solids as well as the chicken and serve some of the liquid separately if you wish.

It is at this stage that on numerous occasions I have taken more liberties with dish by:
•    adding one or more extra ingredients to the dressing: 1-2 chopped anchovies , 1 tablespoon of pomegranate molasses instead of the sugar (molasses is definitely not Sicilian)
•   scattering pomegranate seeds on top of the salad.

Save any left over liquid to use as a stock to flavour braised rabbit, chicken, pork and venison dishes.

A bit of trivia:
I read recently that pomegranate juice has anti-inflammatory compounds, cancer-killing isoflavones and antioxidant properties. Italians call it melograna, melograno granato, pomo granato, or pomo punico. The generic term, punica, was the Roman name for Carthage, and the best pomegranates came to Italy from Carthage.

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