Saturday, December 19, 2020

Anna Sultana’s Chicken Marsala / Christmas Traditions & Baking / The Great Conjunction

It’s less than a week before we’ll be celebrating a very unique Christmas.
It’s been a hard year, but here we are. 

We’ve made it! So celebrate. Safely.

The week is off to a unique beginning.
The Winter Solstice on December 21 marks the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and is the day with the fewest hours of daylight in the entire year.
If you’re getting tired of T. V. shows - yes, one can only take so much streaming - Mother Nature will be giving us a special show on Monday night: Jupiter and Saturn will be forming a Great Conjunction.
These planets come together every 20 or so years (the last conjunction was in 2020), but this will be the closest they've been together since 1623, just 14 years after Galileo made his own telescope.
In 1614 the German astronomer, Johannes Kepler, suggested that a similar conjunction - involving different planets - occurring in the year 7 B.C. may be what the Three Wise Men in the Christmas Story called the Star of Bethlehem.

On Monday night, about 30 minutes minutes after sunset, try to have a clear view of the southwestern horizon.
The planets will be pretty low in the sky and will remain visible for about an hour.
This is the only time you’ll be able to see the conjunction. Really. On Tuesday the planets will be further apart.
Astronomers say there won't be another Great Conjunction this close until 2080.
Hope it will be a cloudless night for everyone.

Now about a Christmas dinner…
Most families will be celebrating apart, so a traditional turkey dinner might be a bit too much.
Why not try something a little different to finish off a year that has been very different.
In February, 2013 I posted this recipe for Carmela Soprano's Veal Scaloppine Marsala with Risotto, a recipe for two.
Of course, Ma’s recipe is a little different.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas!


If you’d like a thicker sauce place the flour left over from dredging the breasts into a small bowl, stir in some of the wine mixture, then stir it into the sauce in the skillet.

The parsley and a squeeze of lemon tones down sweet Marsala’s sweetness.

Don’t usually buy Marsala and not sure what it is?
Marsala is a combination of wine and a distilled spirit, such as brandy, and is similar to Madeira or sherry in flavour.
Marsala comes in both sweet and dry varieties, and either will be fine for this recipe.
For future purchases, to use sweet Marsala for sweet dishes, such as tiramisu or Zabaglione, and dry Marsala for savoury dishes.
Whichever you buy, the Marsala won’t go to waste.
Zabaglione would be a delicious dessert on New Year’s Eve.
Just buy a good quality bottle of Marsala and toast the New Year!

If you’re just cooking for two don’t worry about making four servings.
You can store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.

                       Chicken Marsala

Serves 4

Place the rack in the middle of the oven.
Heat to 200° F

Trim and quarter
8 ounces cremini mushrooms

2 cloves garlic

One at a time, place between 2 sheets of plastic wrap or in a heavy zip-top bag
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Using the flat side of a meat mallet or a heavy plate or rolling pin, pound each breast gently into even pieces, about 1/4-inch thick.
Set aside and repeat with the remaining breasts.

On a plate-sized piece of waxed paper spread
1/2 Cup flour
Sprinkle over the flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dredge the breasts in the flour mixture (add more flour if needed).
Set aside.

In a large skillet melt together over medium-high heat
3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Add 2 of the chicken breasts.
Fry until golden-brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
Remove the browned chicken to a baking dish or rimmed baking sheet.
Repeat with the remaining 2 chicken breasts. 
Cover the chicken with aluminum foil and place in the oven to keep warm.

In the same large skillet melt over medium-high heat
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
Add the quartered mushrooms and cook about 3 minutes.
Add the minced garlic and cook about 1 minute.
3/4 Cup dry Marsala wine 
Scrape the bottom of the pan to remove the browned pieces.
3/4 Cup low-sodium chicken broth
Simmer until reduced by half and starting to thicken, about 15 minutes.
1/4 cup heavy cream
Return the chicken to the sauce.
Cook until the sauce thickens about 3 to 5 minutes.
Serve hot over cooked pasta. Angel hair pasta is nice.
Garnish with chopped parsley and lemon wedges.
A nice salad completes the meal.

I also wrote the following essay about Christmas traditions for our CKUW radio show ‘2000 & Counting’. Over the years our listeners asked for some seasonal stories to be repeated.
They seemed to like being reminded that we were all in the same holiday boat, a communal ship which made us feel like we were all sinking fast.
Ah… Christmas shopping, holiday baking and holiday customs…

I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned, there are two questions no one should ever ask a woman.

The first is "How old are you?"
The second is "Have you done your holiday baking yet?”

Why is it that, when the thermometer falls, we're supposed to bake? 
Does the Queen whip up a fruitcake before writing her speech?
I don't think so.  

Holiday baking has been with us an awfully long time.
Did you know that ginger was popular in Greece over 5,000 years ago? The Egyptians were eating gingerbread when the great pyramid of Cheops was just a brick and a prayer. I wonder what their gingerbread men looked like.

A few years after Egypt's building boom, an English King and his hunting party got lost in a blizzard on Christmas Eve.  Well, they were clever lads full of English pluck, so they threw everything they had - meat, flour, sugar, apples, ale and brandy - into a bag and cooked it. Wallah!!  Plum pudding. The Iron Chef would've been proud.  

On Christmas Day in 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he had risen earlier than his wife Who was desirous to sleep having sat up till four this morning seeing her maids make mince pies. 
I really admire Mrs. P. She just sat and watched her maids do the work, yet her husband felt guilty about her workload. How did she get him to suffer like that?   

Some Christmas carols seem a little too focused on food.  For example:
     “Now bring us some figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer!
     We won't go until we get some, so bring it out here.”
Those were somebody's friends?  Somebody should've called the cops.

Holiday baking has followed us into modern times. The 1970s was the decade of old time family television shows like The Waltons and memoir books.
Have you ever browsed through a memoir book? It could make you weep. They reminded us of times like this...

“Evenings when a cold blustery wind howled outside were perfect for sorting through recipes. They were cozy times. The children were sitting at the oak table helping Mama chop fruit and raisins. Papa was cracking and shelling nuts and crushing fresh spices in the grinder.”

Isn't that sweet? Sentences like that convinced me that if we did things just like people did before television was invented, the world would be a kinder, gentler place.

We'll never know. Paul told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to grind nuts for a cake he didn't even want.
Alright. Scratch Paul grinding his nuts. I bought ground nuts.

Step two... the batter had to be mixed. Back to that memoir...
“When all the fruits were in, Grandmother called, 'Come, stir the batter!'
We all took turns giving it a stir - clockwise for good luck - and made a wish."

I made a batter, threw in the fruits and called out, "Come, stir the batter!"

Carl pointed to the electric mixer sitting on the counter and said that he was staying on the eighth level of his computer game, The Temple of Ra. He also told me, in no uncertain terms, that he was too busy to stir batter for a cake he didn't even want.

I stirred the batter, clockwise.
Don't ask what I wished.

It's been downhill ever since. Do you know about the charming Swedish custom of hiding a whole almond in a serving bowl of rice pudding? The lucky person who finds the almond has to get married or do the dishes. Either my husband or my son - the fink never confessed - managed to swallow the almond every time.

I tried the German version - whoever finds the almond receives a marzipan pig. By then Paul and Carl had their own tradition: swallowing the almond. I felt so guilty looking at that poor rejected pig.
I started my own tradition and ate him... along with the cake.

There's a Christmas carol that goes: "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat..."
Well, the goose isn't the only one.

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