My great-grandmother transcribed recipes in the only language she knew: mix half a wine glass of "X" with a handful of "Y," then add "Z" till it's the right consistency. Like many women of her generation, she learned to cook from her mother. When she moved away from home in Pyrgos, Greece to Worcester, Massachusetts, she continued cooking as she first learned: by feel, taste, and what she had on hand.
I don't remember my Great Gramma Worcester, but my mother and aunt adored her —- they recall her feeding strangers that appeared at her backdoor. They also adored her cooking —- favorite recipes include rice pudding, pasticcio, and egg and lemon soup. Over the years, they have worked hard rewriting her recipes in a language more familiar to the cookbook-collecting, iPad-dependent generations.
I, of course, couldn't be more grateful. I grew up eating chicken kapama, also known as "red" chicken, but it wasn't until recently, when I found myself with a couple of fickle children sitting around my dinner table every evening, that I started making this childhood favorite for my family. Browned with butter and cinnamon sticks, then braised on the stovetop with tomato sauce, chicken kapama never tastes more delicious than at this time of year. I serve it as my mother always did, with buttered egg noodles tossed with the cinnamon-scented tomato sauce and finely grated parmesan. Everyone, children and adults alike, adores red chicken with egg noodles.
Shop the Story
There are countless variations of chicken kapama, but my great-grandmother kept it simple, rarely using more than butter, cinnamon sticks, and tomato sauce. As noted by my mother and aunt, she consistently she cooked the chicken at a leisurely pace, browning the chicken in the morning, braising it in the afternoon, turning the stovetop burner on and off throughout the day, with the whole process often taking hours. She also wasn't afraid to use butter and a squirt of ketchup (surprising, I know) for sweetness.
Now that I've made the kapama a few times, I have noticed that it never turns out better than when I take my time with both the browning and the braising and leave the finished chicken to rest hours before serving, allowing the flavors to meld, the acidity of the tomato sauce to mellow, and the cinnamon flavor to heighten. But without fail, I have to fiddle with the sauce in the end -- sometimes with butter, sometimes with ketchup, sometimes even with water. I can't tell you exactly how much -— a pad? a drizzle? a spoonful? -— but that's just how Gramma Worcester would like it.
Serves 3 to 4
1 chicken, 3 to 4 lbs 4 to 8 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 to 2 cinnamon sticks Pinches of ground cinnamon Pinches of ground cloves Kosher salt Fresh cracked pepper 15 to 16 ounces tomato sauce (unflavored and low sodium) 2 tablespoons tomato paste Ketchup 8 ounces egg noodles 1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano (optional, for serving with the noodles)