The combined flavors of fresh morel mushrooms and wild leeks (also known as ramps), shout “spring is here”. Spring is never long enough for us to get our fill of our favorite wildings; like other foraged foods, morels and wild leeks can only be had during a few short weeks of each year – and then only if and when Mother Nature permits.
Of these two, morels are the subtler in flavor, yet their earthy-smoky taste is robust enough to hold its own in just about any dish. Wild leeks, on the other hand, can require a little bit of taming to bring out their best. Braising, the technique of cooking at low temperatures with moist heat, seems to highlight the most admirable qualities of each perfectly.
This dish, a twist on the old classic, Chicken Marsala, makes a few changes that result in a succulent breast that is both moist and very tender. The chicken breasts are first browned, then are gently cooked with the morels and wild leek bulbs in aromatic Marsala wine. As the ingredients braise, the morel flavor permeates the entire dish and the wild edge of the leeks is softened, becoming mild and sweet.
At the very end, the sauce is finished with beurre manié, a butter-flour mixture that gives it a smooth, velvety consistency that clings to the chicken like a second skin.
The result is a true harmony of flavors; each ingredient – chicken, morels, wild leeks – is deliciously present, yet together, they produce a sensational taste that is greater than the sum of their parts.
Time-consuming to prepare? Not really. All of this takes under an hour to prepare, start to finish; once your ingredients are prepped, actual cooking time is about 30 minutes.
Chicken Marsala with Morels and Ramps
When braising chicken breasts, we prefer them bone-in and with the skin on. Chicken breasts seem to cook more evenly and retain their shape better when most of the breast bone is left intact. Likewise, the skin adds just enough fat to keep the breast moist, juicy and flavorful.
- 2 chicken breasts, preferably bone-in & skin-on
- 4 Tbsp olive oil
- salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
- 8 – 10 ramps, bulbs only (greens removed and reserved for other use)
- 4 oz fresh morel mushrooms, cleaned
- 1 tsp fresh thyme
- pinch cayenne (optional)
- 1 cup Marsala
- 1 Tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1/2 Tbsp flour, plus more for dusting
Lightly dust the chicken breasts with flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the olive oil to a large skillet or saute pan that has a tightly fitting lid and turn the burner to medium-high.
When the oil is hot, but not smoking, add the chicken breasts, skin-side down. Cook until the skin is golden brown, about 3 minutes, then turn to brown the bottoms for another 2 – 3 minutes. Remove the chicken breasts from pan to a plate and set aside.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the pan and return it to the burner, reducing the heat to medium. Add the ramp bulbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and softened, about 3 minutes. Add the sliced morels, thyme and cayenne pepper, if using. Season with salt & black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.
Add the Marsala and bring to a simmer while stirring. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chicken breasts, skin side up. Cover and return to the burner, reducing the heat to low. Cook for 12 – 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through, but still moist and succulent.
While the chicken cooks, mash the flour and butter together in a bowl until smooth. When the chicken is done, remove the breasts from the pan onto warm serving plates. Return the pan to the burner and raise the heat to medium-high. When the pan juices begin to simmer, stir in the butter-flour mixture, whisking steadily until it has been incorporated and the sauce begins to thicken. Continue to cook and stir for an additional 3 minutes or until the sauce is smooth and the flour has cooked through. If the sauce is too thin, cook it a little longer; if too thick, whisk in a little chicken stock until the desired consistency is reached.
Spoon the sauce over the chicken breasts and serve.
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