This dish is based on a recipe that was handed down from my Italian great-grandmother. Even today when I smell the aroma of this dish cooking and taste the sweet, roasted, caramelized vegetables, juxtaposed against tender bites of chicken encased in a garlicky, breadcrumb crust, I am immediately transported back to my childhood.
Like most of the women in my family, my great-grandmother was an amazing cook and would make dishes like this for dinner after Sunday mass, serving her big, extended family hearty but simple fare. She was used to feeding lots of people with big appetites, but she and my great-grandfather were immigrants and had to work hard to make ends meet. She had to make her food budget stretch and needed to be clever and imaginative with her techniques and ingredients.
While this is my great-grandmother’s recipe, I have played around with the recipe and made it my own. My great-grandmother used dry herbs; I prefer fresh and use whatever's in season and what’s growing in my garden. In the summer, a handful of basil and a few sprigs of oregano are heavenly. Also, different vegetables can be substituted (at the peak of summer, I am partial to zucchini and eggplant). For this contest, I used inexpensive root vegetables that are sublime roasted—potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions—but splurged for the fennel and red pepper. They are not exactly in season in the winter, but they are my favorite vegetables to roast. My great-grandmother’s recipe does not contain any acid, but I like the bright flavor that lemon zest and juice bring to the bread crumb crust and to the pan sauce. The roasting technique, which is adapted from Judy Rogers's Zuni Cookbook, uses slow moist heat to gently cook the chicken and vegetables in a covered pan. The addition of a little wine with the olive oil deepens the sweet, mellow flavors.
When I think of a feast, this is the kind of meal that I like to cook and serve and share with loved ones, no matter how many people are at my table. (Amounts can be doubled or tripled—just bake chicken and vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet instead of a sauté pan.) I find this kind of slow-food meal immensely pleasurable to prepare. So often I am rushing during the week to get dinner on the table, but this is the sort of recipe that I enjoy making on the weekend when I can take my time browning the chicken, chopping the herbs and cutting the vegetables just so. Then the whole thing roasts in the oven for an hour, leaving the cook free to sip a glass of wine, make a salad or chat with loved ones. And when it’s finally served, this is a dinner that doesn’t put on airs or stand on ceremony. This is simply food that makes you feel good. —cookinginvictoria