Here is my Culinary -“ARTS STUDIO.”
My bestie, Clare, has always said that I could make a few pieces of lettuce look delicious on a plate. She is also the friend who lets me wear neon bike shorts in high school and let me marry my first husband. But those are stories for another day.
I started placing said lettuce on that plate back when she and I were around 15 years old. I have come a long way, Baby.
I caught up with Clare tonight. We live insanely crazy lives. But no matter how busy we are, she and I always carve out time for each other.
Because that is what best friends do.
She has always stood up for me- both at the dress rehearsal wedding and this one, the main performance.
Clare keeps me grounded. She talks me off the ledge, encourages me and always has my back. She and I have been friends since 1982. We have had some serious run time. The way I see it is that if she hasn’t dumped me by now, she probably won’t.
And I have forgiven her for the neon bike shorts.
She is exhilarated and exhausted by her new job. She is trying to find the balance. She wants to crawl into bed at night and relax. I SO get it. I feel the same way. And I told her I could relate.
Clare said, “Mar, of course, you’re spent. It’s not like you are writing about how to grow tomatoes.”
She was so right.
I am writing about my life. I am in a place of vulnerability. That is hard to turn off.
But, when my tank is empty, cooking fills me up.
One of my great passions is cooking. With or without tomatoes, it is as therapeutic as writing or going for a long run or organizing the sock drawer.
I read cookbooks the way some read novels. I devour them. They inspire me. The pages of my favorite cookbooks prove that they are loved by the smudges and smears of past creations. That may sound gross, but it is usually just the remains of some innocuous ingredient like olive oil. Don’t worry.
There is a process.
First, I hunt.
I get jazzed about reading a few recipes by my favorites, Julia, Ina, and Tyler. Then, I transform their ideas into my creation. I encounter success and, on occasion, the big FAIL.
Then, I gather.
I am a grocery store aficionado. Maybe it is the agility with which I push my cart through the aisles. Maybe it is the comfortable conversation I have with my favorite butcher, Douglas. Who knows?
Trust me when I say that people randomly approach me in the aisle and ask me where to find the fish sauce or the golden raisins. It is as if I have a neon halo above my head flashing “pro-shopper” in two-second intervals. Yesterday, a dear elderly lady asked me where to find the bread crumbs. We were standing right next to them.
Then, I create.
Creating can be messy, but it is rewarding. The transgression from “mise en place” to “TA AAA DAH!” evokes success. It brings joy and a feeling of accomplishment. Best of all, cooking makes the people I love happy.
When my marriage was falling apart my past husband and I were disconnected and miserable, cooking became a coping mechanism for both of us. I did the cooking. He did the eating. What a perfect arrangement.
At the time, our son was just a toddler who consumed so much time and energy, as wee ones do. My ex and I both worked. We were always tired. At night, there were stories and prayers and tuck-ins (usually more than one.) Then, we were alone.
“Alone” and “us”: not a good combo.
My former husband took to watching TV. I took to the kitchen. I would start cooking at 8:00 P.M. and usually somewhere around 10:00 P.M. I would serve dinner in front of that TV.
It was our only semblance of togetherness. And at that time it worked. The TV held power over the dinner conversation. That made it easier for both of us.
In cooking, I found comfort. It was my escape. It was the way he and I avoided one another, and it worked. I was so comfortable in the kitchen. I was having a fling with my cutlery and my copper core pans.
It sort of saved me.
My marriage ended, but my cooking was just the beginning of a whole new world.
My love of cooking started in my childhood home. My mom taught me well. I loved standing on a chair watching and helping as she cooked dinner on many nights.
Mom is an amazing chef who taught me, amongst other things, that cooking is chemistry. I thought I was screwed. Oh, how I struggled in Sister Robert’s chemistry class!
But as long as I was not required to balance any chemical equations, I was ok.
Mom’s Chicken Marsala was the bomb and became my “go to.” If I wanted to impress, I pulled out her recipe. You know that “man’s heart and stomach” thing? Chicken Marsala became my secret dating weapon.
Her recipe was decadent and delicious. It was time-consuming as well but still worth the effort especially when love was at stake. I cut, chopped, dredged, buttered and sautéed my way to the masterpiece (or heart-attack) on a plate.
It is funny, but I never cooked Chicken Marsala for My Michael until after we were married. There has to be something subliminally psychological with that one, don’t you think?
My Michael sits with me as I cook, keeps me company and is my official taste-tester. What a difference from my past days as a solo chef with no taste-tester.
Now, cooking brings our family together. It is not a means by which I isolate myself. Our routine is to come together at the table, break bread and break the news of the day. It is fun. Also, The Three Musketeers (A.K.A. our boys) provide our nightly dinner entertainment.
About a year ago one of my personal chef customers requested Chicken Marsala. Although my mom’s recipe had always been the gold star, I decided to shake things up. I studied a few recipes, and this is what I turned out.
It takes half the time as my mom’s delicious recipe as well as half the butter. They loved it!
So today, I wish to share a recipe with you. I have cooked Chicken Marsala many times. Over time, however, it has evolved and become a newer version. It has become a symbol of how I have created myself and how I have evolved, too.
So, enough of the cushy stuff. Let’s get cooking, friends!
- 4 skinless, boneless, chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- All-purpose flour, for dredging
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbs. Bacon fat (I keep a mason jar with pan drippings on hand in my fridge. It is worth the calories.Trust me)
- 8 ounces crimini or porcini mushrooms stemmed and halved
- 1/2 cup sweet Marsala wine
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 2 tablespoon butter
- 1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Put the chicken breasts side by side on a cutting board and slice diagonally so that you have thin slices.
Lay a piece of parchment paper over them (or use paper towels if you prefer); pound with a flat meat mallet, until they are about 1/4-inch thick.
Put about 11/2 cups of flour on another piece of parchment paper and season with about 1 Tsp. of Kosher salt and 1/4 tsp of pepper. Mix well to evenly distribute the seasonings
Heat the oil over medium-high in a large skillet (I use my grandmother’s cast iron skillet that quickly conducts heat evenly.)
While the oil heats, dredge both sides of the chicken cutlets in the seasoned flour and then shake the excess.
Place the cutlets in the skillet and fry for 4-6 minutes on each side until golden, turning once.
Do not crowd the pan; you need to be sure that there is space between the cutlets for them to cook properly.
Remove the chicken to half-sheet pan (a cookie sheet or oven-proof platter will do) which has been covered with foil of parchment paper. This makes the clean up much easier.
When all the cutlets are cooked, place in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes.
Lower the heat to medium, and add the bacon fat to the drippings in the pan. Saute for 1 minute to render out some of the fat.
Add the mushrooms and saute until they are browned, and most of the moisture has evaporated 6 minutes or so, season to taste with salt and pepper.
Pour the Marsala in the pan and increase the heat to high. Boil about a minute to cook down the alcohol.
Add the chicken stock and simmer for 2 minutes or so to reduce the sauce slightly.
Stir in the butter until melted.
Place the cutlets back into the skillet. Simmer gently for several minutes on medium low.
Season with salt and pepper.
Plate the chicken and garnish with the fresh parsley.
Serve with rice pilaf or risotto.