Chicken marsala is a plebeian variant of the more famous, elegant and expensive veal marsala. One version or another has been made around the Mediterranean for a very long time. Marsala wine itself, however, has been with us only since the late eighteenth century, when a local Sicilian wine made a commercial success of an English trader named Woodhouse who fortified it with more alcohol so it could survive the sea voyage to market. The sauce made with it is aromatic, spicy, and complex. It has become especially well known in America. This dish has been a popular one at American Italian restaurants and dinner parties for a long time.
Basically, chicken marsala consists of breaded chicken cutlets in marsala sauce with mushrooms and herbs. It's one of my busy peoples' foods because, well, it's quick, easy and delicious, once you know how to do it. This one is written for two, though you can multiply it to your heart's content so long as you have a big enough pan. It's a basic recipe. Get it down pat, and you can vary it by adding shallot, onion, or garlic, different herbs, lemon, or your favorite mushrooms.
Ingredients: two boneless, skinless chicken breasts, each sliced into two pieces; half a cup of flour seasoned with salt and pepper; butter and olive oil; half a pound of sliced cremini mushrooms; a cup of marsala wine; a cup of chicken stock; a small handful of chopped oregano.
Prepare the chicken
First, take each breast half and put it between layers of plastic wrap. Smearing a little oil over the plastic will keep it from breaking or sticking. Pound and roll the chicken to a cutlet 1/4 or 3/8 of an inch thick. Don't worry overly much about precision. You're cooking, not taking a math test. I thin them out with a pastry pin, but most anything will work. When I can't find the pin I sometimes use a little marble Buddha statue I have as a bookend just because it's within reach. Don't be afraid to hit it. Thinning out chicken breasts is a great way to take out your frustrations.
Once your half breasts are ready, set them to the side and wash your hands. You can handle them with tongs from now on.
Cooking chicken marsala is about as easy as main courses get. Just keep the basic process in mind and you'll be fine: bread, brown and remove the cutlets, make the sauce, then finish with the chicken back in the pan.
Put a tablespoon of butter and one of olive oil into a saute pan or skillet and heat it up on medium high. You want it hot but not smoking.
Bread your pounded cutlets with the seasoned flour. You can do that by putting the flour on a plate and dragging both sides of the chicken pieces in it, or by putting the flour into a paper or plastic bag, adding the chicken all at once, and shaking it up so it's thoroughly coated. You get the same result either way.
Saute the breaded cutlets so they are lightly browned. It will take only a minute or two on each side. You're not trying to cook them through now, just brown them. Do not crowd the pan. As they're done, remove them from the pan to a plate on the side to hold until later. You don't have to keep them hot. Feel free to add a little more butter and oil as you go, but you probably won't need to. This step goes quickly.
When all the chicken is on its holding plate, add another tablespoon of butter to the pan and put in the mushrooms. Let them saute while stirring until they turn brown around the edges and are letting out their water.
Add the marsala. It will steam immediately and then start to boil. Don't let the steam scald your hand. Scrape up the fond, that delectable, brown crust forming on the bottom of the pan, with a wooden spatula or spoon, and let the wine reduce to about half its original volume. It should take about five minutes. Add the stock, and let the pan boil until the sauce becomes slightly thicker, another two or three minutes. Add the oregano, and then another tablespoon or two of butter to finish the sauce and make it glisten. Swirl it around with your spoon, put the chicken back in, cover it, cut the heat down to medium low, and let it simmer for five minutes more. The thin chicken will cook through and soak up the heady tastes.
Serve chicken marsala immediately. Once finished it does not hold well, so have your accompaniments ready. A little fresh parsley as a garnish on top of each serving brightens up the flavors nicely, too.
You can put it directly on the plate with sides separate, but traditionally it is served atop pasta, rice, or potato. I like to put it on brown rice cooked open pot, risotto style, in chicken stock. The flavors and textures are perfect. This pot of rice has some more mushrooms and some sweet pepper in it.
Start to table, chicken marsala takes less than half an hour. If you have been afraid to try it at home, don't be. Nothing could be easier, and not many supper dishes could taste better or make the people at your table happier. Give yourself a little more time on the first one just so you can get it right, but after that you'll be cooking up chicken marsala like a professional, and it won't take you all evening to do it.
If you're into wine with your dinner, try one of these with chicken marsala:
Pinot Noir, Viognier, Merlot
I think the first one generally does the best.