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Practicing the basics: chicken marsala

Chicken marsala sounds and looks complicated; it’s not. It’s simply sauteed chicken breast cutlets, with a classic pan sauce that includes aromatic vegetables, mushrooms, and a lot of wine.

Makes 4 servings. Time required: about 45 minutes.

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  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 thin-sliced chicken breast cutlets, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds
  • 3 tablespoons cooking oil, divided
  • Optional: 2 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped into small pieces
  • 12 ounces cremini or portabello mushrooms, sliced into pieces about 1-inch across and 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 large shallot
  • 1 1/2 cups marsala wine, dry or sweet
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

Place the flour in a wide, shallow bowl. Pat the chicken cutlets dry with a paper towel. One at a time, drench the cutlets in the flour and set them aside on a plate. Patting them dry and covering them with flour ensures that they are very dry on the outside, which will enhance the browning.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Place the chicken cutlets in the skillet and cook until brown on both sides, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove the cutlets and set aside on a plate. It’s ok if they aren’t fully cooked yet; they will get to finish cooking later.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet. If using the bacon, add it to the skillet now and allow it to cook until the fat renders off and the meat browns, 3-4 minutes.

Add the mushrooms to the skillet and saute, stirring occasionally, until they are slightly browned on both sides. Add the shallots and cook until they start to soften, about 3 minutes. This is the “saute some aromatic vegetables” stage of making a pan sauce.

Remove the pan from the burner and pour in the marsala wine and the water. This is important for your safety: the alcohol in the wine could ignite if it gets too close to the burner.

Return the pan to the burner, and cook over medium heat until the sauce reduces by about 1/3 its volume. You may notice it starting to thicken a bit at this point. If not, that’s okay; it’s not done cooking and reducing yet.

Add the butter and stir until it has completely melted and incorporated into the sauce. Continue to cook over medium heat until the sauce noticeably starts to thicken.

Return the chicken cutlets to the pan, and cook for another two minutes, flipping halfway through.

Turn off the burner and remove the pan. Transfer the chicken cutlets to a serving plate.

Add the parsley to the sauce and stir to mix in. Season to taste.

Using a ladle, scoop up the sauce and pour it on top of the chicken cutlets. Serve immediately.

Tips and suggestions:

  • This recipe works with either sweet or dry marsala, but the sauce will taste very different (but good both ways). Try both and decide which you like better.
  • In the cooking aisle of your grocery store you will find “cooking marsala wine.” It’s okay, but it contains a bunch of preservatives, sometimes added sugar, and other stuff you may or may not want in your food. A better-tasting option is to buy a bottle of marsala wine from the wine department in your store; by volume it costs about the same and it will taste much better.
  • The marsala-and-mushroom sauce is really the star of the show here, but the chicken cutlets themselves might need a bit of additional attention; it’s easy to overcook them or just make them a bit dull and flavorless. Brining them for 30-60 minutes before cooking will keep them juicier and bring out more of their flavor. You can use a simple formula for your brine: 4 cups water, 1/4 cup kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons white or brown sugar; stir together until the salt and sugar are fully dissolved, and then immerse the chicken cutlets. Just make double sure that you fully pat them dry after you remove them from the brine!
  • The bacon really is optional, but adds an extra kick of salt and savory flavor; I find it helps especially if using sweet marsala wine.
  • You can use this recipe with full chicken breasts instead of thin-sliced cutlets, but then do the full pan-roasted chicken approach for cooking them: brown them in the pan for 3-4 minutes per side, then bake them at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. You can skip putting them back into the sauce at the end; just put them on a serving plate and pour the sauce over them.
  • In case you’re wondering, most of the alcohol in the wine will boil off while the sauce is reducing.
  • Serving it over rice works well; the rice absorbs lots of yummy sauce.

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