Lately I have been cooking for crowds using my Grandma’s foolproof recipes and techniques. I have turned into a mother hen, herding my friends together for Sunday dinner and bringing the leftovers to work for everyone’s lunch on Monday. I’ll admit, part of my desire to feed a dozen hungry mouths has to do with my own cravings for foods like eggplant parmigiana and roast chicken—not exactly the recipes I turn to when I’m just feeding myself (too many leftovers!). But the underlying current in my decision to throw a dinner party has more to do with the sense of well-being I get from nourishing others—a predisposition that I like to think was passed down from my grandma Mary Martin, and her mother, my great-grandma Maria Libretti.
I never got to meet Grandma Libretti, but I have inherited rich memories of her cooking. My dad and his sisters grew up in the sort of household that doesn’t really exist anymore: a house in Brooklyn filled with three generations. Grandma Libretti lived on the first floor; my Grandma, Grandpa, dad and aunts lived upstairs. Naturally, my dad and his sisters ate downstairs with Grandma Libretti all the time, and the tales of her meals are the stuff of family myth now. I used to love for my dad to tell me about how Grandma Libretti would make ravioli on holidays: she would roll out the pasta dough with a broom handle on the kitchen table.
More simple is what is known in my family as Grandma’s Chicken. Grandma Libretti would make this dish of roasted chicken, potatoes, onions, and peas on weeknights (weekends were for spaghetti and meatballs and sausage and gravy). It’s not “Italian-American” in the slightest, though my Grandma was born near Naples and many of her other beloved recipes are laden with tomato sauce and the like. I remember eating Grandma’s Chicken growing up at Grandma Martin’s house, and later when my Aunt Alice would make it. This past winter, I cooked it for the first time at the behest of my Aunt Mary Ellen, who craves it terribly from time to time (in my family, we call such cravings “woolies,” which is some slant on Neopolitan dialect). When she stepped into my apartment that winter evening, she delighted in the smell of the chicken, potatoes, and onions roasting away in the oven. She pronounced my attempt at it near-perfect; when I made it again last weekend and brought her some leftovers, she said that I had “perfected it.” I think that’s because the potatoes and onions had cooked in the chicken fat until they still held their shape but melted in your mouth. When they’re perfect, the potatoes are the best part of Grandma’s Chicken.
This is that sort of family dish that, when I think of it, I can taste. It also happens to be one of the easiest recipes I know. I think it would be a great dish for first-time cooks to try out. If you can peel potatoes and chop an onion, you can make Grandma’s Chicken.
Grandma’s Chicken, my way
prep + cooking time: about 2 hours
8-12 bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (I prefer thighs and drumsticks)
4-6 medium-sized red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-2″ chunks (I usually cut the potato into eighths)
1 small-medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced into sixteenths
enough olive oil to coat the chicken, potatoes, and onion
paprika, lots (I would estimate about 2 tbsp but when I make this I always just shake the paprika until I like the color I see)
1/2 lb frozen peas
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
2. While you’re waiting for the oven to heat, prep the potatoes and the onion. When they’re chopped, toss them into a large pot–the biggest one you have. Toss the chicken pieces into the pot. Pour a few glugs of olive oil over this (circle around the pot 2-3 times, that should be enough) and season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Don’t be shy with these. Put the lid on the pot, and get a good grip on the handles, holding the lid on. Shake it up and down like crazy for about 30 seconds–you’re coating the chicken and vegetables with the oil and spices! I find that it’s easiest to do this if you start shaking with the pot down around your hips–you don’t want to shake too high and risk the lid coming off and raw chicken raining down all over your kitchen. I have no upper body strength to speak of and I don’t find this too strenuous, so don’t be scared.
3. Pour the mixture from the pot out into a 9″ x 13″ baking dish or roasting pan (I like my Pyrex dish for this). Try to make sure that everything fits in one layer. Put it in the oven.
4. Every 20 minutes or so, open the oven and pull out the baking dish. Use a big wooden spoon to toss the chicken and vegetables around, making sure that the chicken gets to brown on all sides and that nothing gets too done too quickly. When the chicken has been cooking for an hour and twenty-five minutes, pour the frozen peas on top and toss the mixture around. Remove when it’s been in for an hour and a half. Serve!