Enhanced by sweet Italian wine, this fortifying recipe of Sicilian lineage is simplicity itself – unlike its complex backstory.
Photography: Martin Bruno
Recipe & food styling: Aya Nishimura
Few dishes have a straightforward history. Recipes, like the societies that perfected them, have a tendency to change with time (and according to who’s passing them down). More than most, chicken marsala has travelled a topsy-turvy path from its Sicilian origins to its current status as a darling of the second-course section of Italian restaurants in the US, and this is despite having fallen out of favour in Italy itself.
Chicken marsala first appeared on the gilded tables of Sicilian high society in the early 19th century, when enterprising chefs (most likely hailing from sauce-loving France) made the inspired decision to add the region’s sweet or dry marsala wine to a mix of butter, oil and earthy mushrooms plus shallots, garlic, parsley and fregola. The latter (pronounced “fray–gola”, with an emphasis on the first syllable) is a Sardinian pasta made with semolina dough and rolled into teeny baubles. Similar to North African berkoukes and Israeli ptitim, the couscous-like concoction would have been widely exported in the 18th century due to Sicily’s strategic importance as a Mediterranean port ever since the fall of the Roman empire.
Marsala wine itself is of simpler origin. The British trader John Woodhouse moored his ship in Sicily in the late 1780s and was quick to see how the success of sherry and port back home could be copied by fortifying the wine he found here – the higher proof also helped the stuff travel better in the cargo hold. In 1796, Woodhouse returned to the island and set about commercialising and mass-producing the wine to great success, even counting a British naval commander by the name of Horatio Nelson as a fan.
Our version of the chicken dish riffs heavily on the original, with the addition of prosciutto and a dash of salty soy to bring out the flavours in the wine, plus chives and lemon to add notes and elevate the herby fregola mix. The upshot is an uncomplicated recipe that’s been perfected and changed by saucy French chefs, marsala-makers and swashbuckling Brits but remains a comforting dish. Buon appetito and enjoy.
For herbed fregola
10g flat-leaf parsley
10g chives 100g cooked peas
1 lemon, juiced 60ml extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
½ lemon, zested
For chicken marsala
4 chicken breasts
120g plain flour 2 tbsp rapeseed oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
4 banana shallots, thinly sliced
8 slices of prosciutto, cut into ribbons
300g wild mushrooms, such as enoki, shimeji or shiitake, bottoms cut off and separated (and for shiitake mushrooms, sliced)
400ml marsala wine
150ml fresh chicken stock
1 tbsp soy sauce
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
10g chives, finely chopped
First, make the herbed fregola. Cook the fregola according to the packet instructions (about 10 minutes); drain and run under cold water for 1 minute. Drain the remaining water.
Mix with the rest of the ingredients, season and set aside until ready to serve.
For the chicken marsala, slice the chicken breasts horizontally, so you end up with 8 thin chicken breasts. Place these in between baking paper and pound them with a rolling pin or a meat mallet until they are 3mm to 5mm thin. Season the fillets carefully with salt and pepper, then dust with plain flour.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and cook the chicken fillets on both sides until they become golden brown; set aside and keep them warm.
Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic to the pan and cook until it becomes golden brown (being careful not to burn). Add the shallots and cook them until they become translucent (about 10 minutes). Increase heat to medium, then add the prosciutto and mushrooms, and fry for 3 minutes.
Pour the marsala wine and the chicken stock into the pan, bring the mixture to a boil, cook for 5 minutes, then add soy sauce to deepen the flavour. Add the chicken to the sauce, season, then garnish with chives and serve.