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Chicken Marengo, Pollastri alla Marengo

Chicken Marengo is said to have been first prepared for Napoleon on the eve of June 14, 1800, following his victory over the Austrians near the Piemontese town of Alessandria. As one might guess, the situation was fairly chaotic, and the cook used whatever he was able to scrounge.

This is probably why no two Chicken Marengo recipes are alike, and many are quite fanciful. Giovanni Vialardi’s is actually tame by modern standards, and this is probably because he compiled it just a few decades after the battle took place.

Clean two chickens and cut them into 6 pieces each, in other words three from the breast, the thighs, and the backs, plus the wings and the drumsticks, which should be boned.

Mr. Vialardi says to put the pieces in a pot with a quarter cup of oil and a half cup of unsalted butter – you can, if you want, reduce the amount of fat, and I likely would — and add to them 2 onions, a carrot, and a stalk of celery, all sliced finely.

Cook until the meat has colored and the onions are golden, then stir in 2 tablespoons of flour and 2 cups of broth or water, check seasoning, and simmer until the chicken is tender than the sauce is reduced. Transfer the birds to a heated platter, deglaze the sauce and either strain it or blend it, pour it over the birds, and serve.

Vittorio’s Grilled Chicken, Pollo Alla Griglia di Vittorio

Vittorio's Chicken and some Sausages

Vittorio’s Chicken and some Sausages

The grilled chicken Vittorio used to prepare for the Misericordia Di Fiesole’s cookouts was invariably one of the highlights of the meal: Simple, delicately flavored, and mild enough that you won’t need to chase your drumstick with a bottle of Lambrusco.

To serve four you’ll need:

  • A chicken (3 1/2 to 4 pounds, 1.5-1.8 k)
  • 1 tablespoon coarse sea salt (Kosher salt will work fine)
  • 3-4 leaves of fresh sage
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • A 10-inch (25 cm) sprig of rosemary
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste (go easy)
  • A quarter cup of olive oil

Split the chicken up the breastbone, squash it flat, and fold the wings up behind its back.

Strip the leaves from 8 inches of the sprig of rosemary (reserve the end to serve as a brush) and mince them with the sage, salt and garlic. Once the mixture is reduced to a paste, add a little bit of ground pepper to it, stir half the oil into it, and rub it into the chicken. Let the chicken marinate for an hour or so.

In the mean time, fire up your grill (Italians prefer hardwood or charcoal, not briquettes); in terms of heat you should be able to hold your hand at rack level for 6-7 seconds when you put the bird on it. I generally start skin side up, and with the rack at least 6 inches (15 cm) above the coals — even 8 if the grill will allow it. Cook the bird, turning it often and basting it with the remaining olive oil. Should the rendered fat from under the skin flame up, lift the bird briefly out of the way to avoid char, and when the bird is close to being done lower it to about 6 inches above the coals to crisp the skin. The total cooking time will be an hour or slightly more; the chicken will be done when the meat begins to pull up along the drumsticks and the juices run clear if you insert a skewer into the hip joint.

Grilled chicken goes wonderfully with grilled sausages — use sweet Italian sausages, and prick the skins before you put them on the grill — and grilled vegetables, or other picinc foods. You can also rub spare ribs with this seasoning mix.

Kyle’s Variation:

Prepare the marinade above, adding to it 3-4 finely chopped salted capers (reduce the kosher salt slightly) and the finely chopped zest of an organically grown lemon; you should also replace half the olive oil with lemon juice. Cook as above, basting the bird with the oil, and also squeezing a little lemon juice over the skin-side each time it is facing up.

Serve your chicken with a zesty red wine, for example a Valpolicella Classico or a Bardolino, or perhaps Lambrusco if you are having a cookout. It will also be nice with a fruity, lively white wine such as Vermentino.

Yield: 4-6 servings of Vittorio’s Grilled Chicken.