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Nov 14, 2007
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Wine With Chicken Marsala

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas    


As San Francisco is one of our favorite dining-out cities, we were delighted when friends there gave us a copy of Savoring San Francisco: Recipes from the City's Neighborhood Restaurants by Carolyn Miller and Sharon Smith (Siverback Books, 2nd edition 2005).  We're planning to re-create many more of these appetite-piquing recipes, but the first one we tried was Chicken Marsala with Sicilian Spinach from Palio d'Asti, a somewhat formal eatery on Sacramento Street.  There's a lot going on in this rather retro dish (an Italian-American favorite a couple of decades ago), including the sweetness of Marsala wine and raisins, the nuttiness of pignoli, the punch of garlic, and the earthy, acerbic quality of spinach.  The relatively bland chicken breasts serve as a sort of gustatory blank canvas that supports all the action. 


We didn't come across any other recipes in Savoring with a suggested wine pairing, but the one for Chicken Marsala included a brief note which read: 'The chef [Daniel Scherotter] says this dish is perfect with a jammy California Zinfandel.'  As it turned out, we agreed with Mr. Scherotter-the Zin was indeed delicious with the dish-but we didn't always agree with each other.  One of us, for example, liked a somewhat sweet Riesling with it, but the other found that wine too lightweight.  For one of us the Santenay seemed a trifle thin and acidic against the sweet elements in the recipe, while the other declared that particular pairing the best match of the evening.  (This is an example of why the French say, a chacun son gout; we all do have our own palates).  There was, however, plenty of accord on most of the other wines: we agreed that the best whites for the dish had to have enough heft to balance the almost syrupy wine glaze on the chicken, while red wines with good ripe fruit but not too much tannin seemed best suited to it.


Chicken Marsala with Sicilian Spinach

Adapted from Palio D'Asti

Serves 4


4 medium boneless chicken breasts, preferably skin-on

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 cup Marsala wine

2/4 cup raisins

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons minced shallots

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1 cup chicken broth

1 clove minced garlic

2 pounds fresh spinach


Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.


Pound the chicken breasts with a flat meat pounder [we used an empty wine bottle] until each piece is about ½ inch thick.   Salt and pepper them.


Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and one tablespoon of the olive oil in a skillet large enough to hold the spinach (which will be added later).  Add the pine nuts and stir a couple of minutes until toasted.    Remove from heat and set aside.


In a small saucepan combine the raisins and Marsala.  Simmer, uncovered, until raisins are tender, about 8 minutes.  With a slotted spoon, remove raisins and set aside.

In a heavy skillet or sauté pan heat the remaining olive oil.  Add the chicken breasts, skin side down and cook until browned.  Turn them and continue cooking until they are just cooked through, about 7 minutes altogether.   Remove chicken to a plate, cover loosely to keep warm and set aside.


Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter to the skillet.  Add the shallots and sauté them for a couple of minutes until lightly browned.  Add the chicken broth and Marsala and whisk in the tomato paste.  Cook over medium high heat, whisking frequently, until sauce has reduced to a syrupy consistency.


Meanwhile, add the garlic to the pan with the pine nuts and their butter and cook for about a minute, until garlic begins to soften.  Add the spinach and the raisins and stir frequently until spinach has just wilted.  Drizzle with a little more olive oil if desired.

To serve, divide spinach among four plates and top each with a chicken breast.  Stir any juices that have accumulated on the chicken plate into the Marsala glaze; then distribute it over the chicken.   



Approx. Price



Frei Brothers, Dry Creek Valley (California) Merlot 'Reserve' 2005





Soft and supple, this plum and cherry-scented merlot paired nicely with the dish both because it never threatened to dominate the match and because its sweet but balanced character proved very complimentary.




Kenwood, Sonoma County (California) Zinfandel 'Jack London Vineyard' 2005







A medium-weight and fairly restrained Zin, yet still offering plenty of juicy fruit flavor and attractively spicy undertones, this wine echoed the sweet glaze and raisins in the dish.




Bernard Morey et Fils, Santenay (Burgundy, France) 'Vieilles Vignes' 2005

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)








A controversial choice between the two of us, this young red Burgundy tasted somewhat tart on its own.  One of us found that it improved notably when paired with the dish, as the sweetness in the Chicken Marsala seemed to mute the acidity when coaxing out ripe fruit flavors.  The other agreed that it tasted better, but still thought the wine a tad harsh. 




Morgan, Santa Lucia Highlands (California) Chardonnay 'Highlands' 2006




A lush, luscious, but also harmonious Chardonnay, this full-flavored wine had sufficient stuffing to hold up to the hearty glaze on the chicken, and seemed to complement the Sicilian spinach especially well.




Edward Sellers, Paso Robles (California) Blanc du Rhône 2006





A very successful partner with this particular dish, this full-fleshed white (47% Marsanne,  27% Viognier, 16% Roussanne, and 12% Grenache Blanc) offers both ripe fruit and earthy, mineral-tinged notes, both of which enhanced the pairing.  It comes from a relatively new Paso Robles producer, all of whose wines we've found to be very impressive.