Classic Chicken Marsala

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Sometimes people avoid cooking because the pressure is just too great. Perhaps you are limited by your cooking creativity or a fear that a classic gourmet dish just won’t turn out as you hoped. My version of Chicken Marsala, made with just a few fresh ingredients, is a simple, yet hearty meal that is quick to prepare, yet will saturate your family’s taste buds with rich flavor. After trying this, you will never be tempted to pick up that sauce packet or can of condensed soup at the store again. Most people don’t realize that homemade sauces are no more difficult or expensive to prepare than processed foods, but they have a much better flavor and your family will notice the difference. I keep Marsala cooking wine (and various other cooking wines, such as port and Madeira) on hand just for making a quick, last-minute sauces.

Read the recipe and then give it a try! There are several classic cooking techniques you can pick up along with way that just might improve another dish that is on your list of favorites. This recipe takes about 30 minutes from start to finish, making it the perfect selection for an evening when preparation time is limited (which is just about every day at my house).

Ingredients:

  • 6-8 tbsp unsalted butter, divided (Use 8 tbsp for more richness.)
  • 1 cup baby portabella mushroom caps, washed and sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup Marsala wine
  • 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast, pounded thin
  • salt, pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp. tarragon
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 lb. spaghetti, cooked al dente
  • parsley, optional garnish

Instructions:

  • IMG_0003Sauté mushrooms in 2-4 tbsp. melted butter in a skillet. Cook until the mushrooms release their liquid and then continue to cook at high temperature until the liquid is condensed (about 3 minutes).  At the last minute, add the garlic and stir for just one minute. Mushrooms should be caramelized, with just a little bit of browning. (Tip: Garlic cooks quickly, so add it near the end when sautéing.)
  • Add the Marsala wine and tarragon and cook until liquid is condensed and alcohol evaporates, leaving just the sweet flavor of the wine behind. You can let this simmer while you start cooking the chicken.
  • Sprinkle pounded chicken breasts with small amount of salt and fresh, ground pepper. (See tip on chicken pounding technique note below.) Using fresh, coarse-ground pepper is better than using pre-ground pepper as you will get more flavor when it is freshly ground.IMG_0001
  • Melt 4 tbsp. butter in skillet. When hot, but not turning brown, add chicken. (Tip: If using heavy aluminum skillet, place cold chicken in hot butter, but do not re-position it until after the chicken begins to caramelize and release from the pan, as turning the chicken too early can make it stick to the bottom. It is best to let chicken remain in the pan until the caramelization is complete before turning, even when using a non-stick pan.)
  • When the edges of the chicken start to look brown, turn the chicken to the other side and let it caramelize also. Chicken should be slightly brown where it came in direct contact with the pan. When done, remove from pan from heat. (Tip: Do not overcook the chicken, but this will make it tough. Because the uncooked chicken is pounded thin, it will cook quickly. When chicken looks white (opaque) and the outside turns brown, it is done.)
  • While the chicken is cooking, keep an eye on the mushroom sauce. When the liquid is condensed, remove from heat.
  • After chicken is done, add cream to mushroom sauce and stir. Heat over low heat just until mixture is warm and stir cream into the mushroom sauce. If the sauce gets too hot, the cream will separate, so make sure you heat gently until mixture is warm. If mushroom sauce is already warm, it may not be necessary to apply more heat. Remove from heat when warm.
  • Cook spaghetti in boiling water until al dente, or just until soft. (Tip: Test doneness by taking a strand of spaghetti out of the pot and see if it sticks to a surface.  Once it is sticky, it is done. Do not rinse the spaghetti noodles, as this removes the starch that makes the sauce stick to the pasta. Drain well and remove to large serving dish. I bought an inexpensive pasta serving dish that is deep enough to hold the pasta and meat with sauce. I use this dish all the time to serve my pasta.)
  • Arrange cooked chicken on top of pasta. Pour mushroom sauce over top of all. Garnish with additional tarragon or parsley (your choice). Don’t forget that how a dish looks is almost as important as how it tastes, so take the extra time to make a nice presentation.
  • Serve with a fresh salad or steamed, buttered broccoli.
  • Most likely, your dish won’t be in the serving dish long enough to get cold; however, if you have to keep the dish on “hold” (or wait to serve it), keep it warm in a 180-degree oven. If you make it hotter than this, the sauce will separate and will not appear as appetizing as it did when it was first made. Make sure your serving dish is oven-safe before placing it in a hot oven.

Chicken Pounding tip:  Making the chicken of an even thickness and pounding it thin will ensure even cooking (so some parts are not tough and others under-cooked) and will decrease cooking time. I use a thick gallon-size plastic food storage bag and a meat mallet (or hammer, if you don’t have a mallet) to pound it thin. Don’t be afraid to pound the thick parts until they are as thin as the other parts of the meat. This is a great way to take your daily frustrations out on the meat before your family gets to the table.

Chicken Pot Pie

chicken pot pie

This is one of my family’s favorites, especially on a frosty evening. You can serve it with a fresh salad or it can stand on its own, for a quick one-dish meal. The crisp pie crust makes a nice contrast to the warm chicken and vegetables with sauce. It is satisfying and fast–the best of comfort food!

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast
  • 2 prepared, thawed pie crusts
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup carrots, chopped and steamed
  • 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 tsp. tarragon
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup milk or heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Instructions:

  • Poach chicken 5 minutes in water at rolling boil or just until done. (Do not overcook, as this will make chicken tough.) Chop chicken and set aside.
  • Place one pie crust in the bottom of an oven-proof baking dish (12″x12″x3″). Place in 350-degree oven and cook until just brown. If crust bubbles up, prick with a fork.
  • Steam or boil carrots 5 minutes or until softened.
  • Melt butter in sauce pan or skillet. Add onion and sauté until translucent.
  • Add white wine and simmer for 2-3 minutes to let alcohol evaporate.
  • Sprinkle flour into onion/butter mixture and stir until flour is incorporated. Simmer until it begins to thicken.
  • Add chicken stock (from poaching liquid or prepared stock). Stir until incorporated and sauce thickens.
  • Stir in milk or heavy cream and heat to simmer.
  • Add salt, pepper and tarragon. Taste to ensure you have added the right amount of salt and pepper.
  • The sauce should be slightly thick. If too thick, add more chicken stock or water and stir until it is the right consistency.
  • Remove from heat. In the skillet or heat-proof large bowl, stir in cooked carrots, thawed peas and chopped chicken.
  • Pour chicken mixture into prepared pie crust.
  • Sprinkle top with shredded sharp cheddar cheese.
  • Cut remaining pie crust into ribbons approximately 2″ wide and arrange in a lattice pattern over top of chicken mixture.
  • Bake in 350-degree oven for approximately 15-20 minutes or until crust browns and filling is hot.

My Evolution as a Cook

betty crocker cookbookI began my cooking life with my mom’s tomato-red copy of the Betty Crocker cookbook, 1969 edition, sporting fondue pots and cocktail party appetizers on the front. It is now dog-eared, stained and held together with clear packing tape, but I keep it front-and-center in the bookcase above my cooktop because it inspired me in some of my early cooking efforts.

As a young teen, with a working mom, I had many opportunities to cook, and Betty was with me every step of the way from ginger snap cookies to homemade bread. Some of my early culinary endeavors required the cooperation of my extended family, such as the time I requisitioned my grandmother’s antique marble table top to freeze so I could make hard candy on its surface. I studied bread, with a concentration in cookies and cakes and an occasional honors project in candy.

When I married, I inherited the cookbook and got a graduate degree in roasted herb chicken, jamabalaya and ratatouille. I added the Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook (1980 edition) to my arsenal along with a copy of Martha Stewart’s Entertaining (1982 edition). My mother’s decoupaged, olive green, faux-antiqued cedar recipe box was my resource for heirloom recipes such as my grandmother’s fresh apple cake, but Betty and the cadre of cooks at Good Housekeeping helped me in every other department. Immediately after retiring from my work as a software engineer, my first indulgent task was to take all my clipped and copied recipes, garnered from newspapers and magazines, and put them in a binder with sheet protectors. My “Hall of Fame” section of that cookbook is one to which I still refer.

Even now, I enjoy occasionally looking at cookbooks; but, I also maintain a folder of digital recipes on my Mac notebook to refer to when I have to plan a dish or meal. When I find a good recipe (kid-tested and husband-approved), I publish a copy in my folder of favorites, and always include an aspirational picture. I cook Thanksgiving dinner with my laptop open on the counter of my prep surface. Pinterest is an inspiration, along with the many, popular foodie mother-blogger websites. When I plan a dinner party, I make a dinner menu journal entry (filed on my laptop) to include the menu and who attended. I make follow-up notes about what worked or didn’t work well. I maintain several Pinterest boards for inspiration whenever my digital cookbook fails.

For a brief period of my life, I planned my dinner menus for a month in advance; but, sadly, this utopian domestic bliss lasted for exactly one month before I returned to the last-minute, daily scramble of 1) what can I pick up from take-out or 2) what can I make from what I have in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry. This method just seems to suit my creative, unfocused personality better. It also is more adaptive to my my husband’s telling me as he walks out the door in the morning that he has a deacon’s meeting after work and should he pick up something for his dinner.

A more recent development is my foray into original cooking. Now, with more than 26 years of family cooking under my belt and 2,860 approximate meals cooked, I cook from memory and imagination, mostly. My least favorite part of cooking, the planning and grocery shopping, has developed into a routine of deciding at about 5:30pm what I want to cook for a 7:00pm dinner. This method also ensures that I am not required to eat spaghetti when I really feel more like eating salmon. A quick mental review of the food items I have in my house, combined with a quick trip (20 minutes) to the neighborhood grocery store for fresh items, allows me flexibility (if not efficiency) in deciding what to fix for supper.

I love asking friends, “What are you cooking for dinner tonight?” Of course, as my children age, and my friends’ children age, this has developed into, “What are you picking up for dinner tonight?” My family truly, at one point, became the family of the TV commercial where the mom cried out, “Time for supper,” and the kids all ran to the mini-van. While my family enjoys eating out and take-out, I know they enjoy even more having a dinner at home, prepared by me.

This page will record my cooking adventures, and perhaps will inspire you in your own culinary expressions. Perhaps it will inspire you to have a home-cooked dinner at home once in a while. Cooking is not hard, but it does require inspiration.

Thai Shrimp Fire Pot Soup

thai shrimp fire pot soup
Thai Shrimp Fire Pot Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb raw shrimp, deveined, peeled and tails on
  • salt/pepper
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 6 Thai basil leaves, torn (can substitute 1 tsp dried basil leaves)
  • 1 tsp dried cilantro
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 14-oz can coconut milk
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1-2 tsp lime juice (fresh is best)
  • 2 tsp Thai chili garlic paste (add 1 additional tsp if you really want the “fire pot” hot)
  • 1 cup long-grain white rice
  • fresh cilantro for serving, chopped (optional)

Instructions:

  • Cook the rice according to package directions.
  • Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a large non-stick skillet on high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté about thirty seconds, until pink. Sprinkle with salt/pepper to taste. Remove shrimp and set aside.
  • Heat the remaining oil in the skillet and bring back to medium high heat. Add the chili garlic paste and it into the oil until both are combined. Whisk in the coconut milk and broth.
  • Add the fish sauce, brown sugar, salt, basil, cilantro, lime juice.  Stir and simmer for ten minutes.
  • Add cooked shrimp and stir.  Remove from heat.
  • Add cooked rice to individual bowls and pour soup and shrimp over the rice. Garnish with fresh, chopped cilantro.

Makes 2 hearty servings or 4 appetizer servings

Chicken Pesto Ravioli Casserole

I was inspired to create this dish from several various Pinterest recipes using frozen or refrigerator ravioli and cheese as the basic ingredients.  I was also inspired to make this dish because this was what I happened to have on hand one hour before I was scheduled to have dinner ready.  My husband and son both liked my version because it included protein (meat!), cheese and red pasta sauce, all of which are favorites for my men.  This version makes 4 servings. Sorry, but there is no picture because the guys were hungry and ate it before I could snap one.  Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • pesto, 1/4 to 1/3 cup, depending on how much you like pesto (make fresh or purchase from the grocery store)
  • red sauce (tomato sauce), 8 oz. (from your favorite jar or homemade; see notes below for how to take store-bought sauce to a new level of fabulosity)
  • cheese ravioli (16 oz.), refrigerator or frozen variety, thawed (homemade is also a good option for the Martha Stewart version)
  • olive oil; 1 Tbsp
  • chopped onion, 1/4 to 1/2 cup, depending on how much you like onion)
  • minced garlic, 3-4 cloves (see hints for the easiest way to peel and mince garlic)
  • 8 oz. shredded mozzarella (don’t use the low-fat version, unless you secretly hate yourself)
  • cooked, chopped chicken (can buy pre-cooked deli chicken, refrigerator chicken, or you can poach it yourself–be careful not to overcook, as this will make it tough)

Instructions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Heat olive oil in a large fry pan over medium heat and saute onion and garlic until just translucent (about 1 minute; do not overcook).
  • Optional:  add a splash of red wine (the good kind; whatever is your favorite) to the onion/garlic mixture and simmer just until the alcohol evaporates.
  • Add red sauce to onion/garlic mixture and heat until just warm.  Stir thoroughly as it simmers.
  • At the same time, heat a pot of boiling water, enough to cover the ravioli.  Add the ravioli after the water is at a full boil, and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until the ravioli floats to the top of the pot.  (Do not overcook the ravioli, as this will result in mushy pasta, and no one likes that.).  Drain ravioli in a colander and set aside.
  • Mix pesto with chopped, cooked chicken in a bowl.
  • In a 1.5 inch deep casserole dish, spread enough of the red sauce to just cover the bottom (so the ravioli won’t stick; this is an old Italian wife’s trick, although I heard it from a young, Greek, single girl–go figure!).
  • Layer the cooked ravioli over the red sauce in the casserole dish.
  • Layer the cooked, pesto chicken.
  • Layer the mozzarella, reserving just enough to sprinkle on the top near the end of cooking time.
  • Pour remaining warm red sauce over the top of all, covering the ravioli completely.
  • Cook in 350-degree oven for approximately 15 minutes, or until the casserole is bubbling and warm throughout.
  • Near the end of cook time, sprinkle the remaining mozzarella over the top and heat until cheese is melted.