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A recipe and Marsala

"my favourite alcohol in the kitchen ... whose warm, nutty notes marry blissfully with dairy." Nigel Slater

Last night was my day to try out a 'new' recipe of the week. The one I chose was from Nigel Slater's A Cook's Book - Chicken breasts with mustard and Marsala, although in a previous incarnation in The Guardian he called it Chicken with Marsala and crème fraïche. I just checked out the original and it is indeed the same with the mild difference of the finishing touch of a dash of white wine vinegar in my recipe being replaced by lemon juice. Otherwise unchanged. It was delicious (and easy) - one to have again said David. As you can see I served it with griddled broccolini and a potato gratin which had some of the same flavours as the chicken.

In A Cook's Book the recipe was just presented as is with a short essay on deglazing beforehand, ending with the quote at the top. In the original article he adds a note on potential variations:

"You could make this dish with small pieces of chicken instead of a breast and use it as a pasta sauce. There is no reason why you shouldn’t introduce a handful of halved button mushrooms with the chicken. A couple of tbsp of chopped tarragon leaves, added when you introduce the crème fraîche, is a fine variation."

and the accompanying photograph shows it sitting on a bed of spinach. Both pictures taken by the same photographer though - new on the left, old on the right:

The original recipe dates back to June 2020, so one can only assume that he was happy with this one. As he says you need to pay attention to the level of heat when cooking the chicken or it will burn. And I did for once, and it didn't burn. However, as a sort of aside, the recipe called for chicken breasts with the skin on - as do most of the other recipes that I shall come to shortly. Indeed Nigella absolutely decreed that you had to have the skin. Well sure - now tell me where you can find chicken breasts with the skin on. Unless you buy a whole chicken and cut the breasts off you won't find it in any local supermarket. Why? What on earth do they do with the skin? Is it all ground up in chicken mince, put in pet food or just thrown out? I assume it's a leftover from the times when fat of any kind was a big no no, but bring it back I say.

He also specified two large breasts for two people. I used just one. Maybe his large is smaller than our large. Or maybe he's just greedy, although I thought he actually went on a diet at some point. Anyway I cut the breast in half and the two pieces you see in the picture at the top of the page are the result. It was plenty. And lots of lovely sauce to mop up.

The really interesting thing about this recipe though is the addition of cornichons and capers to the sauce. Not an obvious choice but it gave it a wonderful tang. So much so that I'm not entirely sure it needed the last dash of vinegar. I might try without next time I make it, and/or try lemon juice instead.

The marriage of chicken and Marsala seems to be a fairly standard one from Italy and I guess his earliest crack at this is the one in Real Fast Food, simply called Chicken Marsala which a devoted follower made for her website Dining Alone. This, and probably most of the standard ones are simply sautéed chicken breasts, with a sauce made from deglazing the pan with Marsala, sometimes with the addition of cream. Interestingly this afternoon I had a brief email conversation with a friend about how the young don't or can't cook. You do have to wonder why. I mean what could be simpler than frying a piece of meat - Veal scaloppine is another standard and sort of identical dish where the pan is deglazed with Marsala? You could even just eat it with a bit of baguette, and maybe a salad.

Before leaving chicken though let me turn to a couple of alternatives from Jamie and Nigella. Jamie's is a bit more complicated and is from his book Jamie Cooks Italy. He calls it Saffron chicken. You marinate the chicken in saffron and Marsala overnight, and then next day the chicken is cooked. Cherry tomatoes, garlicky almond breadcrumbs and oregano are involved. It looks gorgeous, so might have a go at that some time. Nigella's Chicken with red grapes and Marsala looks slightly less gorgeous to me but is worth a try because of those grapes. Also pretty simple.

I had to buy some Marsala for this recipe. It is not amongst the many bottles of liqueur, spirits and fortified wines in our drinks cupboard. Which seems to be a bit of a crime to many cooks:

"A house is not a home without a good store cupboard. Ideally, it should contain tinned tomatoes, anchovies, black olives, pasta and so on. There should also be a good stock of cooking liquors, but if I had to pick just one, it would be easy: marsala." Victoria Moore - The Guardian

So I went to Dan's and picked up this bottle of Pellegrino Marsala Fine I.P. I actually had no choice - it was the only one there. Well my label is a little different - the 'Italia particulare' has been reduced to I.P. and there is no indication of how sweet it is, although I assume that it is the same which is semi sweet. According to various sites I have seen I should really have got a dry one but, as I said, there was no option. Pellegrino though is the largest producer in Sicily, followed closely by Fiorio. Mind you on one site that I found - it may even have been Dan's it only got 3 1/2 stars whereas an Australian Marsala - Boronia - got five. Well beggars can't be choosers and at least it was a genuine DOC. Fine, by the way, means it has been aged for a year.

Marsala comes from Sicily - western Sicily, and is made from native grapes such as grillo, inzolia, and catarratto, but its current popularity is all down to the British. Of course it was made in Sicily many years before the British became interested in 1773 when an English trader called John Woodhouse discovered it. He thought it would be popular back home, and indeed it was. So popular that in 1796 he returned to commercialise the production. Then in 1806 another Englishman - Benjamin Ingham opened new markets in Europe and America. His company was later run by Joseph and William Ingham Whitaker who owned vast acres of vineyards. Then in 1833 Vincenzo Fiori an Italian entrepreneur bought them out and also many other vineyards. Today the Marsala production is dominated by the Fioris and Pellegrinos - now in their sixth or seventh generation of ownership.

Marsala is most famous for its use in cooking, although it is also drunk as an aperitif or with cheese. But it's in the kitchen that it has truly come into its own. And that chicken Marsala combination seems to be mostly thought of as an Italian/American invention - not Italian as I previously said.

"Marsala has the power to transform the most basic of meals into a feast. A slosh of it here and a drop of it there adds layers of richness and delicious, savoury hints of dried fruit and nuts." Victoria Moore - The Guardian

Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall is another admirer:

"prized for its nutty, datey, toffee-ish flavours. It's lovely served lightly chilled with crisp catuccini biscuits for dunking, and essential to zabaglione, a feather-light mousse of whisked eggs, sugar and Marsala. It's great in game and offal recipes too - its treacly character providing a counterpoint to ferrous meat flavours."

When I was checking out my bottle at Dan's the guy on the checkout - I think he was one of their more senior personnel - asked what I was going to do with it. He obviously thought that people only cooked with it. When I told him chicken he expressed surprise and asked for details, because, he said, most people made cookies with it. Well I didn't find any recipes for cookies. Actually not quite true. Nigel Slater also has a recipe for a Marsala almond chocolate slice in A Cook's Book. Not quite cookies, but almost. He is obviously a fan of Marsala for sweets as well as chicken with a Dried fig and marsala tart and Baked pears with Marsala on offer. And whilst we are on pears, Nigella has a go too - pairing hers with cheese - Marsala honey pears with Gorgonzola

And one final thing is Glazed carrots with Marsala - which is a sort of variation on the way I cook carrots with butter and a little sugar. Rachel Roddy gives us the recipe, although I first found it in Elizabeth David's Italian Food. Most seem to give Ada Boni credit. Fundamentally you cut up your carrots as you would like and cook them in a saucepan with some butter, a little sugar a glass of Marsala and water to cover until they are glazed and syrupy. Possibly one to try.

So all of that from one new dish to me which I will try again. Maybe I could add those mushrooms next time, or try lemon juice rather than vinegar. Dare to scribble over the page in my book. I have to confess though that I'm not sure I tasted the Marsala. Oh dear. Did the Marsala get drowned out by the cornichons and capers? Or is my palate just not discriminatory enough to recognise it? Was it the wrong kind of Marsala?

Well at least I now know that Marsala comes from Sicily from grapes I have never heard of and it has nothing to do with the Indian word masala - even though it sounds more or less exactly the same.


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