Chicken Marsala, the flavor of Sicily!
Updated: Jun 7
Chicken Marsala is yet another family favorite. Its rich, savory sauce with a hint of thyme, bursts with flavor. MY Marsala sauce also features garlic, mushrooms, parsley, a demi-glace, and, of course, MARSALA wine. While ubiquitous at most Italian restaurants throughout America, in truth, this is not an authentic Italian dish. Nonetheless, it does have Italian connections as the sauce incorporates Marsala wine which is a product of designated origin (D.O.C.) from the western coast of Sicily, Italy. That being said, you will NOT find this dish in restaurants on the Sicilian island. This dish came to America, by Sicilian immigrants, who wanted to assimilate the globally renowned local wine from their old country into a dish in their new country thereby bringing the FLAVOR of the Old World with them. This delicious wine also shows up in the famous Italian dessert, Tiramisu.
Where is Marsala?
Marsala is a coastal town located in western Sicily. It is known for several features, including its ancient RUINS, particularly its Phoenician connection, its WINE, its SALT PANS, and its MIGRATORY BIRDS from Africa. This port town has been conquered and occupied for quite some time dating back to the Phoenicians (or Carthaginians ... the tradesmen turned warriors, led by Hannibal), later the Romans, and ultimately the Arabs (and Berbers) from North Africa. In fact, Marsala is Arabic for 'Marsa Allah' which translates to 'Port of God'. Prior to the Arabs, however, this port town actually had a different name. Named Lilibeo by the Phoenicians, it was later referred to as Lilybaeum by the Romans. Interestingly subsequent to the Arabs, the English arrived in the late 18th century. The English, however, did not go to Marsala to conquer it, but rather to make wine.
What is Marsala Wine?
The story goes that the Englishman, John Woodhouse arrived in Marsala and fancied the local Sicilian wine, no different from most people who travel to Italy. Wanting to take it back home to England with him, he knew that it wouldn't survive the long ocean journey without turning to vinegar, hence he decided to fortify it with a distilled spirit to better preserve it, resulting in the birth of Marsala wine. This process increases the alcohol content of fortified wines to about 17-20%. Marsala became immensely popular in England, so Woodhouse, along with a few other Englishmen, moved to Marsala, Sicily to produce it in mass quantities. As noted above, Marsala now has a DOC designation (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) which basically is a designation given by the Italian government to ensure both quality and authenticity; meaning the wine was produced in the said region and under traditional and quality restrictions. Marsala wine is made in both sweet and dry varieties dependent on when the spirit is added during the fermentation process. For savory dishes like Chicken Marsala or Veal Marsala, I use the dry variety. For desserts like Tiramisu or a Zabaglione, I prefer the sweet variety.
Preparation of the Cutlets
I typically make this dish with chicken cutlets, as it is far more accessible, but it is equally delicious with veal cutlets. I enjoy the dish with both. Veal, however, is much more challenging to get ahold of and even seems to be fraught upon, particularly in the USA. Whichever meat you choose, it is important to use an ESCALOPE. Those are slices of boneless meat that have been beaten into THIN cutlets. The cutlets are seasoned and then either dredged in flour or breaded. Thereafter, they are pan-fried in butter/oil.
Chicken Marsala recipe
2 x 24 oz pkgs. cremini mushrooms (3 lbs); chopped
3 Tbsp butter
6 large cloves of garlic; minced
6 Tbsp fresh parsley; chopped
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (~4 lbs.); fileted
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup flour
freshly ground black pepper
1-3/4 cup dry Marsala wine
8 Tbsp demi-glace (I use Minor's brand)
2 cups warm water
1. Heat 3 Tbsp butter in a large skillet over high heat until foam subsides. Saute the chopped mushrooms, stirring frequently until liquid from mushrooms evaporates and mushrooms begin to brown, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and parsley and sauté another minute or two. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Wipe skillet clean.
Prep chicken. Clean, filet in half, and then pound with a tenderizer to make it uniformly thin throughout ... essentially an escalope. Sprinkle with pepper, thyme, oregano, and just a pinch of salt.
Heat 1 Tbsp butter and 2 Tbsp of olive oil in the skillet until hot. While fat is heating in the skillet, lightly dredge seasoned chicken pieces in flour and shake off the excess. Sauté the chicken filets on both sides for about 2 min each side until golden color. Add more oil if needed and continue to sauté the remaining pieces. Transfer chicken pieces to a baking dish once sautéed.
Dissolve the demi-glace in the warm water, stirring with a whisk. Set aside. Once done with chicken, add Marsala wine to the skillet and deglaze by boiling, stirring, and scraping up the brown bits, until reduced by half. Next, add the demi-glace mixture, stirring for an additional 2 minutes. Then add the mushrooms back into the sauce and simmer for a couple of minutes more. Pour the Marsala-mushroom sauce over the chicken pieces in the baking dish. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven at 350 F.
Serve with pasta, risotto, roasted potatoes, or rice. I love mine with some fettuccini alfredo.
It is interesting to note the number of dishes served at Italian restaurants throughout America that we would never see on menus in Italy. Even restaurants in the 'Little Italy' neighborhoods of NYC and Chicago, for example, offer numerous dishes that have been significantly modified or invented by immigrant chefs. Chicken Marsala is one such front runner. But many others join that group, for example, Chicken Fettucini Alfredo, Caesar Salad, Spaghetti with Meatballs, Shrimp Scampi, and Chicken Parmigiana, to name a few. This may leave you feeling far less authentic when dining at your average Italian restaurant. Nonetheless, despite their lack of authenticity, the dishes incorporate flavor profiles, ingredients, inspiration, and familial comfort from Italy, which combine to form a delicious and enjoyable meal.