Istrian Chicken and Pasta

A feel-good chicken and pasta dish from the Istrian part of Slovenia near the Italian border.
A feel-good chicken and pasta dish from the Istrian part of Slovenia near the Italian border.

With colds, flu, and other viruses, not to mention the damp chill of winter upon us, who better than Italian grandmamas to make us feel better?

There’s no time like now to pick up a copy of “Pasta Grannies” (Hardie Grant, 2022), of which I received a review copy.

The cookbook is by Vicky Bennison, the creator behind the successful Pasta Grannies YouTube channel. Like those videos, this book shares the traditions and recipes of grandmothers all over Italy.

You’ll learn everything from Sperandina’s “Asparagus Lasagna from Le Marche,” Anna’s “Roman Stuffed Tomatoes,” and Adi’s “Baked Pasta from Palermo,” to the late-Teresa’s “Mussel Bake from Salento” and 93-year-old Ida’s “Chocolate Pudding from Piedmont.”

“Istrian Chicken and Pasta” is from 86-year-old Marija, who lives in Nova Vas in the Istrian part of Slovenia, close to the Italian border.

It’s essentially a chicken stew fortified with pasta. And it tastes as gentle and nourishing as homemade chicken soup.

Many of the recipes include directions for making your own pasta or a suggested dried pasta to use instead.

I opted for the latter, using dried penne rigate, as recommended.

The recipe calls for 2 chicken legs and 2 thighs browned in a Dutch oven, then cooked with onion, thyme, rosemary, olives, garlic, a few sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken stock. I used for four bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs instead.

When the chicken is cooked through, remove from the pot and tear the meat into chunks, discarding the bones. You can keep the skin to use or discard.

Full of tender chunks of chicken in a brothy sauce.
Full of tender chunks of chicken in a brothy sauce.

Return the chicken meat to the pot with the broth along with the cooked pasta. Stir together gently, and serve.

Initially, the stew will look quite brothy. You can enjoy it that way easily as a cross between a soup and a stew. If leave the pot off heat for about 10 minutes longer, much of the broth will get soaked up, leaving this more as a pasta dish.

Either way you can’t go wrong tucking into this dish at this time of year.

Comfort in a bowl on a cold night.
Comfort in a bowl on a cold night.

Istrian Chicken and Pasta

(Serves 4)

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 legs and 2 thighs of free-range chicken

1 large onion, thinly sliced

Leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme

Leaves from 2 sprigs of rosemary

12 black olives, pits removed

3 garlic cloves

4 sun-dried tomatoes

75 ml (2 1/2 fluid ounces or 5 tablespoons) dry grappa (or brandy)

1 litre (34 fluid ounces or 4 1/4 cups) water or chicken stock

Salt (optional)

Heat the oil in a casserole or Dutch oven over medium heat. When hot, brown the chicken one or two pieces at a time. Don’t overcrowd the casserole or the meat will steam. Remove the chicken and set aside.

Add the onion to the casserole and saute for a good 7 minutes until soft and translucent. Finely chop the thyme and rosemary leaves with the olives, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes, then add this mixture to the onion. Carefully deglaze with the grappa (it’s more flammable than wine, so stand well back and if you use a gas hob, turn off the flame momentarily) and let the alcohol evaporate.

Return the chicken to the casserole and add half the water or stock. Cover with a lid and simmer for about 1 hour until the chicken is cooked. Check the seasoning halfway through; you may not need to add salt as both the olives and sun-dried tomatoes are salty. Add more liquid as needed, if the sauce is reducing too much.

Remove the cooked chicken and, when cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones in chunks. Put to one side, covered with kitchen foil to keep warm. Check the seasoning of the sauce.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta for about 2 minutes until almost al dente, then use a spider to scoop the pasta into the chicken sauce. Add the pieces of chicken and simmer everything for another minute or so, until the pasta is properly cooked.

Tear up some basil leaves and scatter over the dish. Serve with Istrian wine.

From “Pasta Grannies” by Vicky Bennison

More Robust Poultry Soup and Stew Recipes: Cornish Game Hen Soup by Eric Kim

And: Limon Omani Oven-Roasted Chicken Soup with Celery Seeds

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  • Perfectly timed post for this blustery winter day, Carolyn!

    Two questions for you, though.

    1) We’ve been trying to be more mindful of “white carbs”, which makes pasta very dangerous no matter how delicious it is. Do you by chance have any suggestions for sourcing a whole wheat pasta which actually tastes OK? Not asking for the moon here — I do realize that anything in that category will likely fall far short of “delicious” — but anything that’s at least a step up from glorified cardboard would be great to know about.

    And 2) You mention the possibility of saving the skin for other purposes. I have only recently become aware of/converted to the incredible yumminess of crispy poultry skin. What am I missing in the way of uses for this wet stuff?

    Also, thank you for an unexpected geography lesson. Istria is a region unfamiliar to me, but let’s hear it for the surely beloved granny there who shared this recipe!

  • Looks delicious!

  • Hi Carrie: It WAS delicious. Thanks for turning me on to this wonderful cookbook.

  • Hi Carroll: You should try this pasta made in partnership by ReGrained and the Semolina Artisanal Pasta company. ReGrained is a super cool company that repurposes spent grain, especially that from making beer, into nutritious foods.

    As for the chicken skin, I just chopped it up and added it to the pasta dish. If you’re familiar with Hainan chicken, then you know that those of Asian heritage don’t mind the flabby texture of poached chicken skin, and in fact, relish its chewy nature. Give it a try, and see what you think. 😉

  • Hah, I should have thought to search your index! That pasta sounds perfect. Thanks for the pointer. And thanks for the explanation about the skin. Although I am definitely a chicken-skin newbie, I know many people really do enjoy it that way. And I’m a firm believer in not throwing out anything of potential nutritive value. We grannies are a very thrifty bunch!

  • Hi Carroll: I think the soft skin adds nice texture to the overall pasta dish. And I’m with you — why throw out anything needlessly? 😉

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