2010 March: Oh, Marsala!

Marsala is a wine fortified with alcohol, which made it possible to tolerate long ocean voyages when it originated in the 1700s. It’s produced in the area around Marsala, a city in Sicily. Port, sherry and Madeira are also fortified wines. Marsala is crafted from local indigenous white grapes, and there are different age grades of the wine:

? Marsala Fine: designates a Marsala wine that is aged for a minimum of one year. This is a typical cooking wine classification.
? Marsala Superiore: a Marsala wine that has spent up to three years in oak, but has a baseline minimum of two years in wood.
? Marsala Superiore Riserva: 4-6 years in oak. This really starts the Marsala tier that you would look for to use as either an aperitif or dessert fortified wine option.
? Marsala Vergine: 5-7 years in oak.
? Marsala Vergine Soleras: as the name implies, a Marsala blend of multiple vintages, with a minimum of five years of aging.
? Marsala Stravecchio: aged a minimum of 10 years in oak.

Traditionally, Marsala was used as an aperitif between the first and second course of a meal, but it now most typically finds its purpose in the meal itself.

There are basically two designations for Marsala: sweet and dry. In most instances, dry Marsala is used for cooking. Sweet Marsala is used mostly for sipping and as a dessert wine.

Hence, the recipes in this article utilize dry Marsala, which is quite versatile. In fact, I’ve used it in a number of dishes, ranging from sauces to a deliciously satisfying Italian custard called Zabione.

As it goes when cooking with wine of any type, it is important to cook off the alcohol so that you get back to the essence of the grape used to make the wine. One of the classic dishes using Marsala is Chicken Marsala. Here is a very good starter recipe:

Chicken Marsala
Yield: 4 servings (scale up in direct proportion)

¾ cup all-purpose fl our
4 5-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups white mushrooms, sliced
3⁄4 cup dry Marsala
3⁄4 cup chicken broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a deep plate or bowl, dredge the chicken breasts in the fl our. Shake off the excess.

Heat the oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the chicken breasts until they are golden brown, turning once. Transfer the chicken to a plate and reserve.

Add one more tablespoon butter to the pan. Add the mushrooms. Cook and stir until the mushrooms release their moisture and start to turn golden brown. Add the Marsala wine and bring to a boil. Scrape up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the wine by half. Add the chicken broth. Lower the heat and return the chicken breasts to the pan, and continue to cook until the chicken is completely cooked through (this will also help to reduce and thicken the sauce).

Add the remaining tablespoon of butter. Add salt and pepper. Garnish each chicken breast with finely chopped parsley. Serve.

Veal Marsala

Use the same procedure as the chicken recipe (8 veal cutlets, each about 3 ounces, will make four servings). Dredge the veal cutlets in fl our, shaking off the excess. Sauté the cutlets in unsalted butter (2 tablespoons) and olive oil (2 tablespoons) until cooked through. Remove the veal from the pan and keep warm.

Add 2 cups of thinly sliced white mushrooms and sauté for 3 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-high. Add Dry Marsala and cook it off. Add ½ cup chicken broth. Simmer the sauce for 5 minutes. Add a little more unsalted butter to thicken and round out the sauce. Plate the veal cutlets, dress with the Marsala sauce. Serve with sauteed spinach and roasted potatoes or a side of pasta.

Mushroom Sauce

This all-purpose sauce can be used for chicken, veal, pork cutlets and pork chops, as well as turkey. It’s also good in a risotto or when used as a pasta sauce. It’s a breeze to make and can be kept in the cooler for four days. Simmer the sauce for five minutes before using if it has been refrigerated.

Yield: about 1 quart of sauce (may be scaled up in direct proportion)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
1 pound fresh white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thin
3⁄4 cup dry Marsala
4 cups canned plum tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon chopped fl at-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy 3-quart pot set over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook and stir for another 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until they give off moisture and start to brown (lightly). Add the Marsala, bring to a boil and simmer until the alcohol has been boiled off. Add the tomatoes, oregano and basil. Simmer the sauce for 45 minutes to an hour. Season with salt and pepper. ?

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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