Monday, June 28, 2010

2 Recipe #126: Chicken Marsala (Pollo alla Marsala)

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I decided to make chicken marsala for dinner tonight. It's not something I typically make for dinner -- rather, it's usually the kind of dish we'd order for a special occasion at one of our favorite Italian restaurants -- but what the heck, it's good to live a little every now & again. :)

It made the whole kitchen smell fantastic and was quite a delectable, sumptuous treat! Needless to say, this dish got rave reviews at our house. Hope you'll like it just as much. Here's the recipe.... Enjoy!

Chicken Marsala (Pollo alla Marsala)

This classic, flavorful Italian dish gets its name two of its primary ingredients, Marsala wine -- a fortified wine which comes from the Sicilian town of Marsala, located at Italy's southern tip, i.e., the big toe of the "boot" :) -- and, of course, chicken. And of course, what would chicken marsala be without its third signature ingredient, mushrooms?! :)

The secret to good chicken marsala is in the sauce. And good sauce begins with a good-quality, imported Marsala wine. Only imported Marsala wine can give this dish its proper thick consistency and dark, rich color. Domestic Marsala wine pales in comparison, literally. :) The difference between the two can be seen after each is poured into a glass & viewed side by side: Domestic is thin and light in color, whereas imported is thick, viscous, and much darker in color by comparison. This primarily has to do with the different grapes used in production as well as the various methods of production. Imported (i.e., Marsala DOC) is made with highly specific varietals of native Italian grapes, which aren't typically found/grown in the US. Also, not surprisingly, the two wines smell & taste quite very differently as well. (For more details on the various types of Marsala wines, please see the "Chef's Notes" section at the bottom of this recipe post.)

The other important factor in making good sauce is its preparation & length of cooking time: This is why it's important that the sauce be allowed to reach the proper consistency during the reduction process. A good Marsala wine sauce should be thick and syrupy, almost as thick as molasses.

And finally, good Marsala wine sauce has the right mix of flavors: Since Marsala wine's essence only intensifies after reduction, becoming even sweeter & tangier, it needs to be balanced by savory & salty flavors (i.e., its polar "taste" opposites). This is why the addition of capers and herbs like parsley (&/or sage) are a must; they provide the necessary flavor contrast. Finally, lemon juice & nonfat creamer are added to round out the dish and give it the necessary body: The lemon juice brightens the existing flavors, and the nonfat creamer helps to mellow out the dish and provide it with a nice finish.

8 oz. skinless, boneless chicken breast, rinsed & defatted
1 T. all-purpose flour
3 T. plain bread crumbs (or plain cracker meal)
1 tsp. oregano
3/4 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. butter
1/3 c. shallot, peeled & roughly chopped
1 c. yellow onion, peeled & roughly chopped (about 1/2 medium-sized onion)
1 c. white ("Baby Bella") mushrooms, sliced (i.e., 1/2 of an 8 oz. package)
1/4 c. fresh sage, finely minced & tightly packed (optional)
1 c. imported Marsala wine (i.e., LombardoFlorio, Pellegrino, Marco De Bartoli, or comparable)
1/8 c. fresh flat leaf parsley, finely minced & tightly packed
2 Tbsp. light nondairy creamer
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice (the juice of about 1 lemon)
1 Tbsp. capers (garnish)

Directions: Wash chicken cutlets and lay them onto a non-porous (i.e., silicone) cutting board or other smooth, clean surface. Cover chicken with plastic wrap, and tenderize by pounding flat with the bumpy (i.e., waffle-patterned) side of meat mallet to a uniform thickness of about 1/4".  After chicken has been tenderized, cut each piece crosswise into halves (or thirds, if you prefer). In a small bowl, mix together flour, bread crumbs (or cracker meal), oregano, salt, & pepper. Dip chicken cutlets into bowl filled with the bread crumb, flour, & dried spice mixture, and lightly coat each side. Shake off excess. In a large sauté pan, sauté each side in olive oil and melted butter on medium heat for about 3 minutes or until light, golden brown, & remove from pan. Either place on a warmed plate or, if desired, into an oven on lowest heat setting to keep warm. Next, turn down heat to low, & cook onions, shallots, mushrooms, (& sage, if using) in residual butter & olive oil in a large sauté pan until soft, about 5 minutes. Then, to deglaze pan, pour in Marsala wine & reduce to the consistency of a thick syrup. This will take about another 5-10 minutes or so. Be sure to scrape off the fond (i.e., the brown, caramelized residue) from the bottom of the pan while the sauce is forming; this is an important step in the dish's "flavor development." Add chicken back into the pan, & cook for another 3-5 minutes (or until chicken juices turn clear), flipping a few times during the braising process to thoroughly coat with sauce. In the final minute of cooking, add parsley, non-dairy creamer, & lemon juice, & stir well. Remove from heat, place onto plates, garnish/sprinkle with capers, & serve immediately.

Yield: Serves 2.

Serving Suggestions: This dish is commonly served with a side of pasta, potatoes, or rice pilaf, although, if you'd like to skip the starch fest, you can also serve it with a side salad or soup, or substitute a high-protein whole-grain side like Wild Mushroom Quinoa Risotto with Fresh Herbs & Hazelnuts or Herbed Bulgur Pilaf. For some salad recipes that'd go well with this dish, try the Mesclun & Baby Spinach Greens with Gorgonzola, Pear & Candied Pecans, the Lemon-Thyme-Tarragon Vinaigrette on a Bed of Watercress GreensCorey's Gourmet Greek Salad, or the Sine Qua Non Salad, which are all from this blog. But of course. :)

Chef's Notes: When choosing a varietal for cooking & baking, here's what you need to know: Marsala wines are generally classified according to age, alcohol content, color, & flavor styles: Fine -- typically used for cooking -- is normally aged less than one year. Superiore has been aged a minimum of 2 years, & is sometimes aged up to 3 years in oak barrels with a minimum of 2 years spent in wood. Superiore Riserva has a minimum requirement of at least four, although some producers may age it up to 6 years, & is the tier you'll want to use for desserts and apéritifs. Vergine has been aged 5 years or more (i.e., typically up to 7 years) in oak. Vergine Soleras, as the name implies, is a blend of multiple vintages, & is also aged a minimum of 5 years. And finally, there's Vergine e/o Soleras Stravecchio e Vergine e/o Soleras Riserva, which has been aged for at least 10 years in oak.

The lowest aging classifications typically has the lowest alcohol content. For example, Fine is usually around 17% ABV while SuperioreSuperiore Riserva, & Vergine Soleras, all start with an alcohol content of 18%+ ABV.

Colors range from oro (golden) & ambra (amber) to rubino (ruby). As you can probably guess, oro and ambre are both made using white grapes, typically 3 white grape varietals -- Grillo, Catarratto, & Inzolia, although Damaschino is also sometimes added as well, while rubino is made with red grapes like Pignatello, Calabrese, Nerello Mascalese, or Nero d’Avola.

All forms come in both sweet & dry types. Like other Italian wines, the sweetest Marsalas are called dolce (typically containing a residual sugar content of 100+ grams of sugar per liter), followed by demisecco  (usually between 50-100 grams of sugar per liter), and then secco (a residual sugar content under the 40 grams per liter), the driest of all the wine categories. The sweet kind is most commonly found in the US; it seems that the majority of chefs prefer using sweet Marsala for the preparation of chicken marsala, although the dry kind may also be used alone or incorporated with the sweet. As for the particular kind you yourself choose for cooking, that, of course, depends upon your individual taste preferences.

Popular/well-known leading producers of Marsala include Florio (one of the oldest), and PellegrinoMarco De BartoliLombardo* -- all from Sicily.

( * = The above link is more about the company itself. Here's a better link for more in-depth product information on Lombardo. )


Mary said...

Corey, this is a wonderful recipe. Your photo of the dish is beautiful and it's been my experience that food that looks this good is also wonderful to eat. This is my first visit to your blog so I spent some time bringing myself up to speed with your earlier posts. I really like your recipes and will be back often to see what else you've been cooking and discussing. I hope you are having a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary

Cyberpenguin said...

Thanks so much, Mary! It's quite a coincidence that you've found my blog because I'm actually already familiar with yours! :-D You have a lot of great recipes on your blog, & I've just recently started following you there. From your profile, it seems that we share a lot in common besides food. You have good taste, & not just in food! Nice to finally "meet" you in cyberspace. :)

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