Marsala isn't having a comeback. The fortified Sicilian wine hasn't gone anywhere. It's probably sitting in your pantry, where you left it, if you even left it there at all.
You may be aware that it's a wine, or not. You might just as easily have taken it for a sauce, because of the dish chicken Marsala, or a person for whom that sauce was named.
To make matters worse, the stuff sold in American supermarkets as Marsala often isn't Marsala at all. Labeled "cooking wine," it has come to eclipse the real thing, even though the list of ingredients on the bottle can include corn syrup, which you'd expect to find in a can of soda, not in a wine sold at a wine shop.
What Marsala has is an image problem — a case of mistaken identity, really — and it's everyone's loss, because the genuine article is great for cooking and drinking. One of the many culinary specialties of Sicily, the dessert wine (or aperitif) has a pronounced sweetness that's distinguished by traces of dried fruit, caramel and nuts, and some less-expected savory notes.
Marsala began its journey from Sicilian specialty to the American supermarket aisle in 1773, when English trader John Woodhouse docked his boat in Marsala, a port town on Sicily's western coast. There, he discovered a locally fermented wine that relied on an aging process not unlike the solera method used to make sherry in Spain.
A sherry drinker from a country full of them, Woodhouse saw Marsala's potential. He added brandy to extend its shelf life and cooked-wine must (the unfermented juice from whole crushed grapes) to sweeten and tint it. As predicted, his compatriots took to it, and Marsala took off in England — and beyond.
By the late 1920s, its air of prestige had dissipated, and the industry built on its reputation was in decline; imitators made cheap knockoffs, and some of the legitimate producers began putting out less expensive versions of the original. This is also exactly when Marsala hit it big in the United States.
When Prohibition put the brakes on booze, Marsala was granted dispensation: It was presented as medicinal, complete with dosage instructions on the label.
Whether Americans were swigging it on legitimate doctors' orders is indeterminate, but they were ingesting it one way or another in Italian-American restaurants, which began to develop their now-standard repertoire in the 1920s and '30s. That included veal Marsala, and it's where the addition of mushrooms appears to have been codified. The original scaloppine al Marsala is a simple browned veal cutlet flavored with the wine and finished with a quick deglaze. American home cooks might have gotten their first glimpse of that recipe in 1950, when the English translation of Ada Boni's The Talisman Italian Cook Book was published.
People dined out on veal and chicken Marsala for decades afterward, as Italian-American restaurants became favored middle-class destinations.
In the '80s, as northern Italian became the latest chichi cuisine, southern Italian classics fell out of fashion at restaurants (though no one loved eating them any less). But Marsala still had a place at the table, in the form of a modern Venetian invention: tiramisu, that dessert with alternating tiers of spongy ladyfingers soaked in espresso and alcohol and a zabaglione-based cream into which mascarpone is folded.
Tiramisu is still going strong, as are various incarnations of chicken (or veal) Marsala.
For a while, Olive Garden had two on its menu — a regular chicken Marsala and a newer stuffed version, which sandwiches sun-dried tomatoes and cheese between two grilled breasts and tops it with creamy Marsala sauce. A few years ago, the original dish was taken off the menu to the dismay of at least 200 customers who signed a petition to bring it back. (Should you wish to replicate the stuffed version at home, Olive Garden has published the recipe online.)
But there's the sense that Marsala might still be taken seriously in its own right, that you might choose to drink the wine you bought to prepare your double-breasted dinner.
So skip the supermarket. Go to a wine store and buy the real thing. Then drink it with dessert, cheese or, as the Boston chef Barbara Lynch does, freshly shucked oysters. Or drink it with whatever you cooked it into. But do cook with it.
A Guide to Buying Marsala
With an alcohol content that can go as high as 20 percent, the fortified wine is categorized according to sugar concentration, color and how long it was cask-aged. It is sweet, even at its driest. If you intend to bake with it, the dolci (sweet) is generally recommended, while the seco (dry) is best for savory cooking. Either makes for a successful dessert or cheese pairing. For an all-purpose option, you may want to go with a semiseco (semi-dry).
Marsala comes in three colors: ambra (amber), oro (gold) and rubino (ruby). You aren't likely to see the red one mentioned in recipes.
The term Fine is applied to a Marsala aged for one year; Superiore, for two; and Superiore Riserva, for at least four. If your intent is solely to cook with it, a Fine can be your go-to, and a 375-milliLiter bottle should cost you $10 or less. The Superiore can do double duty as a cooking or drinking option. Significantly more expensive and highest in quality, the Superiore Riserva should be savored by the glass.
Marsala-Marinated Chicken With Roasted Vegetables
6 large shallots
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon honey
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 cups dry Marsala
¼ cup PLUS 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 2 pounds)
2 fresh oregano sprigs PLUS 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves, divided use
4 large carrots (about ¾ pound), peeled and cut into 1 ½2 inch pieces
¾ pound mixed mushrooms, such as cremini and shiitake, cleaned
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
10 ounces salad greens
Peel and finely chop 2 of the shallots; peel and quarter the remaining shallots from root to stem; set aside.
In a large bowl stir together the finely chopped shallots, 3 tablespoons mustard, the honey, 2 ½ teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Whisk in the Marsala then ¼ cup oil. Refrigerate ¼ cup marinade to use for the vinaigrette.
Place the chicken and oregano sprigs in a large zip-top bag and add the remaining marinade. Seal the bag and turn it over a few times before laying it flat in the refrigerator for 3 to 12 hours turning it once or twice while it marinates. (If you're in a rush, marinating it at room temperature for 30 minutes is a quick shortcut.)
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
In a separate large bowl, combine the carrots, mushrooms and quartered shallots and toss with 3 tablespoons oil, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper.
Remove the chicken from the marinade and place each piece skin side up on a large rimmed sheet pan. Scatter the vegetables around the chicken, arranging them in an even layer. Discard the marinade in the zip-top bag.
Roast until the chicken is cooked through, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a serving platter to rest. Stir the remaining vegetables and return the pan to the oven to cook until the carrots are starting to brown and become tender, the mushrooms are golden and beginning to crisp, and the shallots have caramelized, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the vinaigrette: Whisk the refrigerated ¼ cup marinade with the apple cider vinegar, then the remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust the flavor as desired, adding more olive oil for a less acidic vinaigrette or more Dijon for something a bit sharper and creamier.
Transfer the vegetables to the serving platter, scattering them around the chicken, and pour any cooking juices left in the pan over the top. Garnish with the chopped oregano. Toss salad greens with just enough vinaigrette to coat. Season the salad to taste and serve with the chicken and vegetables.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Parsnips and Apples With Marsala
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ pounds parsnips, peeled, halved and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon sugar
Kosher salt and black pepper
⅔ cup sweet Marsala
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish (optional)
Melt the butter in a large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the parsnips and apples and cook, stirring continuously, until evenly coated with the butter, about 2 minutes.
Add the sugar, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring continuously, until the sugar melts, about 2 minutes. Pour in the Marsala, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.
Add enough water to just barely cover the parsnips (about 2 cups). Bring to a simmer again, adjusting the heat as needed, then cover the pan and continue to simmer until the parsnips are just crisp-tender, about 20 minutes.
Remove the lid, increase the heat and bring the liquid to a boil, reducing it until it turns into a syrupy sauce coating the parsnips and apples, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley, if using.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
1 ¼ pounds fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced lengthwise ¼-inch thick
¾ cup superfine sugar, plus more as needed, divided use
4 extra-large eggs, whites and yolks separated
¾ cup sweet Marsala
1 cup PLUS 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Heaping ⅛ teaspoon fine salt
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
Freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving
Melt the 9 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, swirling it occasionally. As it melts, the butter will sizzle and foam. Continue cooking until the foam dissolves and the solids turn golden brown, about 5 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed. Remove pan from the heat and allow it to cool.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square cake pan with butter, line it with parchment, then grease the parchment.
Toss the berries in a bowl with 2 tablespoons superfine sugar and set aside while you prepare the batter.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and 5 tablespoons superfine sugar together until pale. Whisk in the browned butter (scraping to include the solids, if you like), then whisk in the Marsala until incorporated.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Sift over the batter and gently whisk to combine, smoothing out the lumps as best you can.
Beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. Slowly add the remaining 5 tablespoons superfine sugar while beating to form a shiny meringue with stiff peaks, 5 to 7 minutes. Gently fold one third of the meringue mixture into the batter, followed by the rest, then fold in the strawberries, using a slotted spoon to add the berries to the batter, leaving any strawberry juices behind.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the top is golden and the cake is springy to the touch, 30 to 33 minutes.
Dust with confectioners' sugar and serve right away with freshly whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
Makes 8 servings.
Food on 05/29/2019
Print Headline: To drink or to cook with?