But not just chicken stew – pollo con umido, or chicken with umido, as we called it growing up. Folk etymology: humid chicken, I suppose. Chicken with sauce. Chicken with a deep, rich, red tomatoey and oniony sauce. Chicken with the best sauce you ever tasted in your life – tons of it, to spoon into the little swimming pool you’ve scooped out of the mound of polenta on your plate. This is winter eating at its Italianiest. This is supper Edenvale Crescent style.

That is, I grew up eating this dish, and having watched my mother make it a zillion times (and having made it a few times myself) I can assure you that you really want to serve this with polenta, and that making polenta from scratch is a cinch. I actually want to reach out and thug you hard on the arm and goad you: “Ca-mon! It’s easy!” It is. And if you don’t feel up to it, or you hate it, or the iconic food of northern Italian peasants is just too goddamn beneath you, you could serve it over boiled new potatoes, I guess. Norm (that’s my mother) has done that before.

This stew is a fantastic family supper. It’s also the best thing to serve for company: satisfying, rustic, authentic. And once it gets going, it just bubbles away while you ignore it. It won’t need your attention till it’s polenta-stirring time, and you can always recruit someone to drink prosecco with you by the stove while you stir. You can probably even trick them into doing the stirring. Good guests love to be tasked! (I do. Don’t you?)

The recipe:

Chicken pieces (8 pieces for 4 people. Mix of dark and white. Bone in, skin on.)

Olive oil

White wine (optional)

One medium-sized onion, diced

A couple of celery stalks, diced (I’d use the leaves too. Fragrant!)

A few carrots, peeled and diced

A few whole cloves of garlic, peeled (I’d smash them with the back of a knife to crack them open a bit and get the juices loosened)

Tomato paste (a couple of tablespoons)

Can of diced tomatoes

Salt and pepper

Thyme (optional)

Pull out your favourite deep fry-pan with nice high sides. (If you’re doubling this recipe, use a pot).

Rinse your chicken, pat it dry, and salt and pepper both sides. Heat your pan at a lively setting (medium-almost-high) and pour in enough olive oil to thinly coat the bottom. Brown the chicken on both sides (starting with the skin side down) until it has lost its alarming pallor and turns a nice browny golden. Add some white wine, if you like, and stir loose whatever has stuck to the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Remove chicken from pan and put it on a plate.

In the delicious oil-and-renderings that remains in the pan, sautée your diced onion, celery, carrot and garlic. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste (says my father). Return chicken to pan, add a can of diced tomatoes. Season enthusiastically with salt and pepper. Crumble in a sprinkling of thyme (optional). Adjust heat to medium/medium-low, so that the contents of the pot reach a steady simmer. Put the lid on and cook till tender (40 minutes to an hour – but watch it). The meat should be falling off the bone. Norm says you can take the lid off for the last 15 minutes of cooking to allow the sauce to thicken. Raise the heat a bit if you really think it needs it.

If your sauce still seems a little thin for your liking – it depends on your tomatoes, it depends on your chicken – stir a little butter into the pot. Once, I mixed up a quick roux (equal parts flour and butter stirred together over low heat – a tablespoon or two or three) in a small saucepan and added that to my stew at the end, and it did the trick perfectly, in seconds.

And now, the polenta:

7 cups water

1 tbsp salt

1 2/3 cup coarse-ground Italian yellow polenta (not instant, people)

Bring water to a boil in a big pot. Add salt. Adjust heat to medium-high (water should still be at a boil) and add the cornmeal in a thin stream – as Marcella puts it, “letting a fistful of it run through nearly closed fingers.” (This is to prevent clumping.) As you are streaming the polenta into the pot, you should be whisking. Make sure that water stays at a boil.

Once all the cornmeal is in the pot, start stirring with a wooden spoon. Stir continually and with conviction. Stir all the way to the bottom, so nothing sticks. Likewise, stir to the sides of the pot, so nothing sticks there either. Stir it like you mean it. Keep it up for 40 to 45 minutes. (Enlist charming guest or spouse who owes you big time.) Stir till the meal “forms a mass that pulls cleanly away from the sides of the pot.”

When is it done? Again, only Marcella can answer that with any panache: “As it begins to cool, polenta should be thick, and when moved, firm enough to quiver. From an Italian point of view, it is least appealing when it is as thin and runny as breakfast oatmeal.” (Not that that’s a jab at the English!)

If you want to make this ahead on a Sunday, say, polenta is fantastic left over. Refrigerate it in a low, rectangular pan. Then the next day, slice it into squares and grill them on the barbecue or in your toaster oven or under the broiler. The outside gets firm and the inside stays soft and yielding. Out of control.

Back to the recipe: Spoon polenta onto each plate. As for you, the eater: Press your spoon down in the centre of your polenta mound to make a little swimming pool for the umido. Spoon that blessed umido over your polenta and place your chicken beside or on top of it. (I’m beside.)

Serve a big green salad after it. Red grapes and parm for dessert.

And that’s supper, Italian style. Feel free to smash your fist on the table and exclaim how bloody good it is. But please – make the boys clear the table. Dio buono.

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