My husband doesn’t ask for much. We have a terrific give-and-take kind of relationship, and I love that when I’ve had a hectic day, or don’t feel in the mood to prep a meal, he happily steps up to the plate, either by grabbing some takeout on his way home, dragging me out to a restaurant, or sometimes taking a turn at the stove himself. And he’s a really good cook, too—one of many things that kept me around in our earliest days together. I couldn’t be with someone who doesn’t enjoy the simple pleasures of food.
So when Les asked me recently to put chicken Marsala back into the meal rotation, I took it to heart. The “rotation” is a running joke at our house—it takes a while for most dishes to cycle back around. I attribute this in part to my having worked 15 years as a deejay at a Top 40 radio station, where every single day was a rearrangement of the same songs I played the day before. We referred to our playlist as a “rotation,” and that’s exactly what it was—‘round and ‘round, over and over. If you think it gets old to hear the same songs every day, well, imagine having to play them! I crave variety, and most of the time, my cooking style is more like a big stack of one-hit wonders than a greatest hits album. Some dishes never get another play in my kitchen, and when they do, they often appear with changes or twists, almost like a “cover” of the original.
I couldn’t distinctly remember the last time I had made chicken Marsala for Les, so I was happy to revisit this dish. It deserves a spot in the Sunday Supper category, not because it requires extra time or a ton of effort (it doesn’t), but because there is a specialness about it that comes from the gentle mushroom gravy that envelops the tender, pan-fried chicken cutlets.
I went off-script a bit with this Italian classic, beginning with the flour coating. Rather than using plain all-purpose flour to dredge the cutlets, I mixed it half and half with semolina flour—the same kind I use when I shape my pizza dough. My reason for this is that all-purpose flour on its own tends to get soaked by the natural moisture in fresh meat, and that can give it a somewhat gummy texture after frying. Semolina remains drier and creates more of a natural barrier to the hot oil in the pan. I was pleased with the result of this substitution and will likely use all semolina next time this golden oldie comes up in “the rotation.”
Which kind of Marsala is correct for this dish? Depends on who you ask, as some cooks like the sweet version. Marsala is a fortified Italian wine with warm, gentle flavors of dried fruit and it is frequently paired with chicken and veal. Even the dry version has subtle sweetness, almost like a touch of honey. “Sweet” is not my favorite genre in an entrée course, unless it is balanced with hot, salty or sour—say, Asian food or barbecue sauce. So I found a lovely, dry Marsala in a wine shop rather than the grocery store (which only carries the cheapest bottles). This was an excellent choice and it’s a good quality Marsala that I plan to use again soon—maybe as a sipper with a plate of cured meats, dried figs and salted almonds. Am I teasing an upcoming record in my next quarter hour? 😉
My other twists on the classic preparation were shortcuts—If time had not been an issue, I would have slow-simmered some chicken parts to make my own rich stock, but I was a bit rushed, so I used a store-bought stock. I definitely recommend stock over broth, because the result is richer and more flavorful. My other shortcut helped me save time on slicing all those plump mushrooms. I needed a whole carton of mushrooms sliced into perfect, ¼-inch slices, so I dug out my trusty egg slicer. It’s the simplest way to make quick work of this part of my recipe.
Ready to get cooking?
Pan fry the floured cutlets in a little olive oil, just until golden on both sides, then transfer them to a plate. Brown the mushrooms in a touch more oil, then add garlic and splash in the Marsala—watch out for the steam! Whisk the pan to release the stuck-on bits, then add stock and let it come back up to a gentle boil.
Return the chicken cutlets to the skillet, turning to coat them lightly in the Marsala sauce. Cover the pan and turn it down to low heat to simmer. I used this 25-minute simmering time to prep my side veggies—a quick, pan-fried and then steamed broccolini with garlic and red pepper flakes. This vegetable can be hard to find (or easy to miss) in the supermarket, but it’s worth a look as a great alternative for people who don’t enjoy the bitterness of broccoli. Count my hubby among them!
When you’re ready to serve, plate the chicken cutlets and veggies and then, off the heat, quickly whisk in cold butter—one teaspoon pat at a time—into the mushroom sauce. This method creates a silky, emulsified sauce. Spoon the mushroom sauce over the cutlets, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and this dinner is a certified hit!
My Chicken Marsala
I have taken a few liberties with this Italian classic, which is both elegant and easy. If you are feeling extra fancy, swap the chicken for veal cutlets.
- 2 large boneless chicken breasts, split into cutlets and pounded thin
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup semolina flour
- Salt and pepper (to season the flour mixture)
- 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (most for chicken, remaining for mushrooms)
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 10 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup dry Marsala (preferably not “cooking wine”)
- 1/2 cup rich chicken stock
- 1 Tbsp. cold salted butter, cut into three pats (keep cold until the end)
- Chopped Italian parsley, to garnish
- Combine flours, salt and pepper in a shallow dish. Dredge cutlets in the dry mixture and set aside on a plate.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a skillet (if you have one that is not non-stick, that’s best) over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, arrange the cutlets in the pan and cook just until golden on each side, about three minutes each side. Transfer cutlets to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.
- Add remaining oil to the skillet and saute the shallots until softened. Add the mushrooms, half at first then the rest. Avoid overloading the skillet as this will cause the mushrooms to steam in their own moisture. When the mushrooms are sufficiently browned and excess moisture has cooked off the pan, stir in the garlic.
- Add the Marsala wine all at once. This will probably create a big cloud of steam! Use a whisk or utensil to loosen any browned bits in the skillet. Stir in the chicken stock and bring the mixture back up to a slight boil.
- Return cutlets to the skillet, reduce heat and cover. Allow the chicken to simmer for 25-40 minutes, depending on what else you have going on. The longer it simmers, the more moisture will reduce, so check on it periodically and add a splash of stock if needed. Turn the cutlets once during simmering as well.
- Transfer the tender cutlets to serving plates. Swirl in cold butter, one teaspoon pat at a time. This will blend with the pan juices to create a thickened, luxurious sauce. Immediately spoon over cutlets. Sprinkle with fresh parsley, if desired, and serve at once.