Cacciatore means “hunter” in Italian. Alla cacciatora effectively translates to “as a hunter would have it” or “hunter-style.” The dish most often talked of here in the states is Chicken Cacciatore, though you can only assume that this dish originated as a means of cooking game meat–likely rabbit.
There are thousands of different recipes out there, but what almost all of them agree on is that cacciatore is a thick and somewhat spicy tomato stew with mushrooms and meat. For my cacciatore I did what I typically doing when cooking anything anymore, and synthesized about five different recipes from varying sources. Oh, and I used squirrel in place of chicken.
The last changes I made were based on the childhood memories of my Italian-American girlfriend. Growing up she always found that her parents tomato sauces were too sweet. This was not so for her nonna, who clearly had some old knowledge. What Nonna did differently was that she used less tomato and added a few juniper berries, a few cloves, and a dash of nutmeg.
All of this seemed simple enough. I had set out on that hunt to bring back some meat for a cacciatore, so one my way out of the woods, with the squirrels in my pack, I stopped to pick a handful of berries from a juniper bush. There are different species of juniper all over the western US, but up at around 10,000 feet the most common is Juniperus communis. It is a low-growing shrub which happens to produce some of the most palatable juniper berries. Unfortunately, and perhaps predictably, the most delicious berries are guarded by the most devilish needles. These things are impossible to avoid while gathering the berries. You really just have to lean into it and accept that you’re going to take a lot of painful little stabs. Fortunately, you only need four or five for a large dish.
Squirrel Cacciatore with Creamy Polenta
3-4 small squirrels (or a few chicken thighs or a hare), cut into serving pieces.
salt + pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
3 shallots or 1 onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 green pepper
1 carrot, sliced small
½ lb. mushrooms
16 oz. (1 can) crushed tomatoes
1-2 cups olives of your choosing, sliced (I prefer stronger olives)
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
½ cup dry red wine
½ tsp dried oregano
½ tsp dried basil
½ tsp dried thyme
½ tsp red pepper flakes
4 juniper berries
dash of nutmeg
1 tsp Anchovy Paste
For the Polenta:
1 cup dry polenta or cornmeal, preferably medium ground or finer
5 cups chicken stock
2 tbsp butter or olive oil
The stock allows the flavor of the polenta to shine without becoming overwhelming. Water can be used if a more corn flavored polenta is preferred, as can milk, if you prefer a heavier polenta. If prepared properly, polenta made with only water will still be creamy and delicious, and a perfect accompaniment to such a strongly flavored dish as cacciatore.
For the Cacciatore:
Begin by tossing the squirrel with flour, salt, and pepper. Fry the pieces in oil over medium heat until golden brown. Remove the squirrel from the pot.
Add the vegetables, spices, herbs, and anchovy paste, and cook, stirring often, for several minutes or until somewhat softened.
Add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan, gathering all that good caramelized material. Cook for a few minutes to allow the wine to reduce slightly. Then add the tomato and return the squirrel to the pot. Stir this all up and then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for around 45 minutes.
Check in on the cacciatore occasionally to stir things up, and check on consistency. This should be a thick stew. If it is too thin, simmer uncovered for a while to reduce moisture. If it is too thick, add a small amount of water or stock.
After 45 minutes, add the sliced olives. Another ten minutes simmering with the olives, and it will be ready to serve.
For the Polenta:
Start your stock on high heat. Sprinkle in the corn meal while whisking to prevent it from sticking to the bottom. Bring the pot to a boil, stirring frequently, until the polenta thickens enough that it begins to spit. When this happens, lower the heat and continue to cook. It is important throughout the process to stir frequently, scraping the bottom each time, to prevent the polenta from sticking and burning.
Continue this process for roughly one hour. The polenta should become a thick porridge which sticks to your spoon. When you taste it, there should not be dry, uncooked grains of corn meal. It is a slow process, but it is delicious.
When the polenta is done, remove it from heat and stir in the olive oil or butter. It can be served immediately.
Alternatively, if you want to fancy the dish up a bit, you can make fried polenta cakes. To do this, spread the polenta about an inch thick on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. Put this in the fridge or freezer a while to set (but be careful you don’t accidentally freeze it).
Once the polenta is thickened, you can use a glass to cut out circles and fry them in olive oil to create a crispy exterior.