Traveling (and eating) in the Empire State
If you’re looking for a getaway that will transport you to a completely different realm, look no farther than New York. From the bustle of the Big Apple to the tranquility and historical beauty of the Hudson River Valley and beyond, New York offers Mainers a welcome change of scenery that is only a day’s drive away.
I went on a September road trip to upstate New York a few years ago. We drove through the Hudson Valley to visit my father’s alma mater, West Point, one of the most beautiful campuses in the state. Then I meandered up through the Capital District, stopping at antique stores and admiring neat farms and scenic vistas.
At Albany I took a hard left and headed to Utica, into the heart of the Mohawk Valley, to visit my friend Francesca, Utica born and bred. After years of online friendship (thanks Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), Franny wanted to show me Utica’s unique charms and introduce me to her family.
And what a family it is, a Heinz 57 mix of Italians, Poles, Germans and who-knows-what. Franny gathered as many of them as possible for a real Utica feast. That is where I was introduced to two iconic Utica dishes—Chicken Riggies and Utica Greens. Both are sublime in taste and distinction and both have their roots in the city’s unique blend of cultures.
Each Utica family, each home chef and each restaurant puts their own spin on Chicken Riggies, but the basic ingredients are the same: chicken, rigatoni, tomato sauce, peppers, wine and cheese. Some make their sauce creamy by adding heavy cream. Other say the original recipe left it out.
My take on Chicken Riggies is a variation of Franny’s family recipe—one that includes cream sauce. It is rich, hugely flavorful and perfect for feeding a crowd.
As a bonus, I’ve also included Franny’s recipe for Utica Greens. This recipe uses escarole, but I’ll adapt it for kale or Swiss chard when my summer garden is in full gear.
⇓ CHICKEN RIGGIES
1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut to bite-sized pieces
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 7-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
2–3 hot cherry peppers, chopped (fresh or pickled)
1 medium onion, diced fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 29-ounce tomato puree (I use about 3/4 of the can and save the rest for another use. If you are feeding a crowd and doubling the recipe, you can use one 29-ounce can and one 15 ounce can.)
1 package rigatoni, 16 ounces
3/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cups grated Romano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Set a large skillet and two tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add chicken and cook through. Remove from pan and set aside.
In the same pan over medium heat, add the remaining olive oil. Add onions and cook until starting to soften. Add peppers and garlic; cook until softened but not browned.
Add white wine and bring to a low boil. Stir in tomato puree, adding salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and gently simmer until sauce starts to thicken, about 10 minutes. Add chicken and heat through. When chicken is evenly distributed, stir in heavy cream and Romano cheese, reserving a bit for garnish. Make sure cream and cheese are thoroughly incorporated into the sauce.
While preparing the sauce, cook the rigatoni in a large stockpot according to package instructions, making sure that the pasta is cooked al dente.
Drain rigatoni and return to stockpot. Add the sauce to the pot and gently fold into the rigatoni. Serve family style in a large bowl and garnish with cheese.
Riggie Pro Tips
Some people like their Riggies with a big kick. You can up the number of cherry peppers or add red pepper flakes for more heat.
If you like your Riggies without cream, add more wine, up to 1 cup. If your sauce is still too thick, you can add a little pasta water to thin it out.
Most Chicken Riggie recipes call for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I like chicken thighs, which are more moist and have a stronger flavor that stands up to the bold sauce.
If you’re in a rush, don’t hesitate to use store-bought rotisserie chicken.
Cooking for a crowd? This recipe doubles beautifully.
⇓ UTICA GREENS
1–2 large heads escarole, about 1 1/2 pounds
3 tablespoons of olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
2–4 cherry hot peppers (fresh or pickled), chopped
3 ounces pancetta, small dice
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
1/4 cup Romano cheese, grated, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl, prepare an ice bath for the greens and set aside.
Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, prepare the breadcrumb mixture. Combine olive oil, breadcrumbs and cheese until well blended and set aside.
Blanch greens in boiling water for a minute or two, until they are wilted but still a little firm. Place them immediately into the ice bath to stop the cooking. Drain greens thoroughly.
Squeeze gently to remove excess moisture, then chop greens into 2-inch pieces. Set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a saucepan over medium heat. Cook pancetta until starting to brown, then add garlic and peppers. Cook until peppers are softened and garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes.
Mix greens with peppers, garlic and pancetta.
Combine 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup grated cheese, and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Reserve two tablespoons of the mixture for garnish and add the rest to the greens. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Place greens in an oven-proof skillet or casserole and garnish with the breadcrumb mixture.
Place under a broiler and broil until breadcrumbs are golden brown, about 3–4 minutes. Do not overcook.
Top with a little more grated Romano cheese and serve immediately.
Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. She lives near the ocean in an old farmhouse with two ill-behaved dogs and two hard-working barn cats. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at candacekaru.com.