What Did The Connollys Have For Dinner Last Night?

Because “What’s for dinner?” is the most important question most of us answer every day.

Chicken Vesuvio
Chicken Vesuvio was a dish I’d never heard of before a few weeks ago. Then, one fine day, I was listening to a sports radio show out of Chicago when the hosts got into something of an on-air brouhaha over whether or not a dish called “Chicken Vesuvio” should properly contain peas.

Now, I love “battle foods.” Dishes that spark controversy. I love debating whether barbeque means pulled pork in sauce or ribs or just live fire cooking. I love debating the relative merits of deep dish vs. thin crust pizza. (Thin crust. No contest. But I’ll have a slice of deep dish too if you’ve got extra.) And I was especially excited to hear of a chicken dish sparking such debate.

The fact is, other than their wings, I have little interest in chickens. I cook chicken often, because, well, you kind of have to don’t you? But I rarely get fired up about it. So when I encountered two grown men yelling at each other over the propriety of peas in a chicken dish I’d never heard of it sent me flying to the Internet for recipes.

It turns out Chicken Vesuvio is a Chicago original which was probably invented in a restaurant called, aptly, Vesuvio, on Wacker Drive. In a very general sense it consists of on-the-bone chicken pieces braised in white wine with potatoes, garlic and herbs. If I remember correctly, the guys on the radio were arguing over whether the version prepared at Harry Carry’s (no peas) was superior to Vesuvio’s (peas.)

Now, as I wrote recently, I am a big pea guy. But as I combed through a number of recipes online the one that most appealed to me most included not peas, but artichoke hearts. To me, the artichoke heart is one of the best flavors in the entire world (along with lobster and watermelon Jolly Ranchers,) but they’re difficult to use. For one thing, while the flavor of an artichoke heart is wonderful, it’s also a bit metallic and it doesn’t always play well with others. (Artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin that can trick the tongue into perceiving other flavors as sweeter or bitterer than they are. In fact, many sommeliers will tell you that artichokes and asparagus are the two most difficult foods to pair with wines.)

Another problem with artichoke hearts is that they live inside of artichokes. While I don’t mind eating an occasional artichoke’s worth of leaves to get to the delicious heart, chowing through 500 leaves to yield a Vesuvio’s worth of hearts would have left me feeling like a cow chewing her cud. (I would also feel bad just tossing the leaves away.) However, happily, the recipe I found called for the use of frozen artichoke hearts.

“Wait. What?” I thought. “There are frozen artichoke hearts?”

I suppose I must have seen frozen artichoke hearts in the past, but I’ll be damned if I’d ever thought of using them. I find that in most non-fresh guises artichoke hearts lose their magic. Yes, pickled choke hearts are good, so are the ones that come in oil, but they don’t have that smack-you-in-the-face deliciousness that fresh ones do. But this application appealed to me. After all, if the hearts contributed even a slight artichoke heartiness to the dish, wouldn’t that be a win for all of us?

I was pretty fired up at this point. Here was a one-pot dish that had a lot to offer: It could excite debate; it could make chicken fun again; and it might just be a way to utilize frozen artichokes! Holy hell, it was a prefect storm of rustic food goodness!

I rushed to the store and procured my ingredients. This is my favorite way to cook—when you’re trying something new that not only might succeed, but might actually crack your regular roster.

Most of the time I buy whole chickens and cut them up myself, but this time I bought a package of thighs. I powdered the meat with salted and peppered flour, then crisped it up in olive oil and a little butter in a large Dutch oven. I removed the chicken to a plate, browned garlic and a leftover shallot in the chicken fat, then tossed in about 10 red potatoes that I’d cut into thirds. I browned the potatoes a bit, then put the chicken thighs on top of them. I added enough wine to come halfway up the chicken parts, closed the pot and baked it in the oven for about 15 minutes at 375.

While everything was simmering away I boiled the artichoke hearts quickly, then drained them and set them to the side. I took the pot out of the oven, removed the chicken, stirred the hearts into the sauce and put the chicken back on top of everything. The sauce had reduced a bit by now, so most of the chicken sat up out of the liquid. I put the pot back into the oven without the cover to let the chicken skin crisp up. I baked it for about 12 more minutes, took it out, rested it, then piled everything “family style” onto a big platter and tossed on some chopped herbs.

To be honest, just smelling this dish while it cooked I knew it was going to be awesome. When I brought the platter out to the table Oliver’s eyes lit up and he said, “Oooh! Nice and warm!” Which is what he says when he’s pretty psyched about dinner.

It turns out Chicken Vesuvio is really kind of magical. It takes humble chicken pieces and potatoes and transforms them into something you can get excited about. It takes the promising but hitherto barely usable frozen artichoke heart and turns it into a reliable contributor. The dish can be prepared in a single pot in less than 45 minutes and while I’d never heard of it two weeks ago, when I set it on the table, it felt like something I’d been cooking my whole life.

As you can probably tell, I’m a zealous Vesuvio convert. In fact, I already imagine a world wherein I Vesuvio everything: pork chops, turkey, veal. How about a mixed sausage Vesuvio with cabbage instead of ‘chokes and beer instead of wine? Goodness gracious, it's a marvelous time to be alive! Now we've just got to start looking into the question of peas.


Chappy93 said...

damn- will have to try this sucker!
The only other chicken I've ever gotten fired up about is:
(or google "Zuni Chicken" if the link doesn't work)
.. also, let's talk soon about using ground dried porcinis and tarragon to coat a steak- it blew my mind...

V.H. McLoughlin said...