Thursday, May 31, 2007

Chicken Marsala for Monz

A young Thai exchange student has spent the past semester at the Athens home of Anna and Andrew, my partners in the family deli and catering business there. Her nickname is "Monz", which is not Thai for several reasons, including that a final "z" (or any other consonant for that matter) is not used, and not even pronounceable, in Thai. She began in Bangkok as "Mon", but when she spent time with a family in Korea, the younger brother there dubbed her "Cookie Monster" and the "z" sound stuck. Her high school year in Athens is over and we are having a farewell dinner for her on Sunday. And of course the choice of menu is hers.

What does a Thai teenager of Chinese ancestry chose? Chicken Marsala and pasta. Hey, it surprized me too. We make the dish occasionally at the business, particularly on Tuesdays (which is Italian food day), so I guess she must have been exposed that way. Chicken Marsala is a pretty sophisticated dish, with a sauce rich in mushrooms and with a luciously unique wine flavor. It's not teenager party food, but Monz, you asked for it and this is what you're getting.

Chicken Marsala is a classical southern Italian dish, traditionally also made with thinly sliced veal. It is based on Marsala, a heavy fragrant wine in a league with Sherry from Spain and Port from Portugal. Marsala is made in the town of that name in Sicily but comes from California, as well. (Marsala is also the correct wine for making Zabaglione [Sabayon in French], the rich custard used to top elegant Italian desserts.) Dry sherry or tawny port can be substituted for the Marsala in the chicken dish, but the flavor, though still delicious, will be somewhat different. The recipe serves six generously, accompanied by a lightly seasoned pasta or rice dish or polenta. This dish goes well with a fragrant red wine, such as a Sangiovese from Italy, or with a rich white wine such as a Chardonnay.

Chicken Marsala Tim

1-3/4 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
3 tablespoons brandy or white wine
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1-1/4 teaspoons salt plus more for cooking
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon marjoram
Pinch of thyme
Small pinch of cayenne or a squirt of Tabasco sauce
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms
3 shallots (not too large) or 1 small onion, minced
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons dry Marsala (if sweet Marsala, add 1 tablespoon lemon juice)
(substitute dry or semi-dry sherry or tawny port)
2 tablespoons sour cream or heavy cream
A little chopped parsley for garnish

Trim chicken and cut into 1/2-inch thick pieces about 1 by 1-1/2 inches wide. In a bowl mix chicken with the brandy (or white wine), cornstarch, 1-1/4 teaspoon salt, nutmeg, oregano, pepper, marjoram, cayenne, and thyme. Marinate at least 20 minutes (or all day in refrigerator). Stir once or twice while marinating. Meanwhile prepare the vegetables and set aside in separate piles: Rinse the mushrooms, cut off the tips of the stems and slice mushrooms 1/4-inch thick. Slice, and then mince the shallots. Crush, peel, and mince the garlic. Have everything ready before cooking.

A few minutes before serving time, heat a large frying pan (non-stick is best) and add part of the olive oil. Over high heat, stir and partially fry the chicken until the pink color has mostly, but not entirely, disappeared. Remove chicken to its marinating bowl. Add the remainder of the oil to the pan and quickly stir and fry the shallots and garlic until just fragrant but not browned, 20-30 seconds. Add the mushrooms plus 3/4 teaspoon salt and stir and fry quickly over high heat (add a little oil or water if sticking to pan) until beginning to shrink and darken in color (1-2 minutes). Add the partially cooked chicken plus any juices and stir and fry just until fully heated (20-30 sec). Add the Marsala (or sherry) and cook quickly, stirring, until the rapid bubbling stops (1-2 minutes). Taste the sauce and add salt if necessary (make it slightly salty, since the mushrooms will continue to soak up a little salt). Stir in the sour cream or cream until smooth. Remove from heat and serve immediately, dusted with a little parsley.

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