Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Real Italians Come to Dinner!

Molly suggested that we call their friends Cristina and Moreno. We were interested in meeting some Italians, to know people on a deeper level than the merchant-customer relationship that we had so far in Monte San Savino.

They showed up for dinner, and I had bought a pollo nostrale (an old breed, raised locally) for the main course. I had tried a similar local variety of chicken, rangy and thin, no breast to speak of, when we had exchanged in Revolon, near Padua several years ago. It had been a disappointment, tough and gamy. The butcher had suggested that I cook it in a skillet, marinating it with white wine.

I had never planned on buying another pollo nostrale, but had been shamed into it by the local butcher's son. I had pointed to two plump little birds, thinking they would cook up like oversized game hens. He looked doubtful. I said, "They aren't good?"

He said, "Well, they're only two months old...this one is a year old!" He pointed proudly to the scrawny pollo nostrale, it's breast bone straining to break through the thin skin. He went on. "The flavor is much better. These little chickens don't have time to develop the flavor."

I folded.

Going home with the chicken, I told myself I would salt it and cook it Marcella Hazen style with lemon; it would be fine...it would be enough...after all,it was a whole chicken, and it had two breasts and two legs...and we'd have other things, too...

I washed the chicken thoroughly. That reminded me of the time we raised chickens and cleaned them ourselves. This chicken had not sanitized by processing. It had a strong smell of butchering that wasn't appetizing. I'm an American, and although I buy my chickens in Santa Fe from Pollo Real, a local chicken farm that's as close to natural as possible, I haven't smelled a chicken that was so close to the barnyard in a long time. I told myself it would be full of flavor.

I dried the chicken and sprinkled it with salt. The salt bounced off. This chicken had skin that had dried thoroughly in the display case and was taking no salt. I rubbed it with lemon and sprinkled it again. Better. Into the refrigerator.

The next day when Cristina and Moreno showed up for dinner, I showed Moreno the chicken. He made approving noises. I said, "It's small." He said, "Oh, no! It's very large! How are you going to cook it?"

I told him about my plans for roasting it whole, and he said, "No, we split it, like this." Taking a pair of scissors, he cut the chicken down the backbone and spread it out flat. Inside I saw lung tissue and kidneys, something I always remove before roasting. I insisted on cleaning it, in spite of his protestations that it would be fine.

He salted and peppered the chicken heavily inside and out, generously dousing it and the frying pan with olive oil. Into the hot oven it went, skin side down, and after about 20 minutes, Moreno said, "Do you hear something?" I said no. He put his hand to his ear and said, "Listen." He knocked on the table then pointed to the oven. "It is the chicken. It wants to be turned."

The skin was golden, and he turned it. It cooked longer and he turned it several more times. He cut the chicken up into many, many pieces. He was right, cut up this way, a chicken could feed a village. There was a little blood on one of the joints which Moreno pointed to with the tip of the knife before dumping all the chicken back into the skillet. Although I would have eaten it as it was--it looked perfectly cooked, juicy with crisp skin--into the oven it went again. I asked him how long, and he said 10 minutes. I was nervous. All the Italian chicken I had eaten so far had been overcooked and dry.

After twenty fidgety minutes, I knocked on the table. I said, "The chicken wants to come out!" Moreno smiled. He leaned back and made a dismissice gesture with his hand and said, "It's in no hurry..."

When the chicken came out, it was done. Well. Delicious. And enough. And I learned just how a Tuscan cooks a pollo nostrale!

While the chicken was cooking, Moreno cooked the risotto I had planned, but that's another story.