A dear friend recently celebrated his birthday by hosting a big night out on the town (his extravaganzas more often than not end with very late night dance parties). I am more of a homebody myself, so I opted out of his wild and crazy festivities and offered to cook him a quiet dinner instead. Planning a heartfelt meal is the easiest way for me to show I care.
I always ask dinner guests if they have any personal requests. For my friend, it was no pork and no booze. His love of cheese may even surpass mine, so I plotted a scrumptious cheese course with all my current favorites. To wash it all down, I whipped up a zippy fresh ginger mocktail, because you can't start out a dinner party without a signature cocktail. (For the drinkers, just add vodka!)
Dinner was a super simple chicken marsala, a dish I personally think is comfort food at its best. (Don't worry, he doesn't mind wine in his food as long as the alcohol gets cooked out.) I paired it with the best smashed potatoes I have ever made, which included horseradish and a heap of shredded gouda. The sweet-and-savory mushrooms poured over the crisp chicken and cheesy potatoes seemed a match made in heaven.
For dessert, there was coffee, caramel cake, and good conversation late into the evening. It was a birthday to remember, for me at least. I know I will be dreaming of that luscious sauce for years to come.
For the chicken: 3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 1/2 pounds), split into 6 cutlets Wondra flour or all-purpose flour, for dusting 2 tablespoons canola oil 2 tablespoons unsalted butter Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the marsala mushroom sauce: 1 pound baby bella or button mushrooms, cleaned and sliced 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided 1 cup dry marsala wine 1 cup warm beef stock, preferably homemade or low-sodium 1 tablespoon tapioca flour, optional for a thicker sauce (see Recipe Notes, below) Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven on its lowest setting (160°F or so).
Place the cutlets between two layers of plastic wrap and pound each to 1/4" thickness. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper. Dust with flour. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the butter. Working in batches, brown the chicken, about 3 minutes per side. Place in an ovenproof baking dish, cover with aluminum foil, and keep warm in the oven. (See Recipe Notes, below.)
With the heat still on medium-high, add the mushrooms to the skillet and, if there isn't oil left from the chicken, up to 2 tablespoons additional butter. Add the mushrooms and cook until their juices start to release, about 3 minutes. Add the marsala and cook at a vigorous simmer until reduced by half, about 15 minutes. (Do not stir.) Add the stock and continue to cook until it reaches a thick, saucy consistency, another 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Pour the mushroom sauce over the chicken. Serve with mashed potatoes or white rice.
• If you don't mind using another pan, you can sauté the chicken while the sauce is reducing. This trims a few minutes off the cooking time and you avoid having to hold it in the oven. Add the pan drippings to the sauce.
• A tasty variation is to place a slice of mozzarella or provolone (à la cheesecake factory) on top of each cooked chicken cutlet and heat under the broiler until cheese is melted. Top with the mushroom sauce.
• I like to use tapioca flour (also known as tapioca starch) to thicken my stock-based sauces. It allows me to reduce them a little bit less, meaning I get more yield. Tapioca starch is tasteless and gives the sauce a nice, glossy sheen. Towards the end of cooking, whisk 1 tablespoon tapioca flour with a tablespoon of water and add to the sauce. Reduce heat to medium-low and whisk until desired texture is reached. Season with salt and pepper.