Veggie Marsala

Oh, heavy whipping cream, you seemed like such a good idea. But instead of adding a silky finish to this vegetarian riff on chicken Marsala, you whitewashed the mushrooms and clouded the translucent yellow onions. It’s not enough to vegetize this dish; it needs to look as good as it tastes.

Obviously the cream had to go, and my sad onions and sweaty mushrooms weren’t winning any beauty pageants either. Thinly sliced shallots added sweet oniony flavor without the mush. I quartered whole button mushrooms, placed them in a hot skillet and left. Them. Alone. No stirring, no shaking. I just turned them once for beautiful chestnut-colored edges and a crisp-tender bite. For those who struggle with the impulse to constantly stir and scrape when sauteeing, start a pot of polenta on another burner and go stir-crazy to give the veggies a buttery yellow bed.

The browned mushrooms and golden polenta needed a dash of color, so I looked for another veggie that would pair well with Marsala. Brussels sprouts bring a cheerful bright green color, and give the dish some extra heft. The secret to making the best sprouts is to stay away from those larger than a shooter marble, or with a long woody stem. I halved the sprouts lengthwise, placed them cut-side down on the cutting board, then thinly sliced them. They cooked up sweetly with some blackened edges to liven up the texture.

It’s tempting to saute the onions, mushrooms and Brussels sprouts at the same time to speed up the process. But when I tried, some of the veggies were overdone, and I was right back where I started with a mushy meal. To speed things up, chop the vegetables the night before and refrigerate them in separate sealed containers. You can also simplify your starch by substituting rice, pasta or store-bought mashed potatoes.

With the vegetables solved, it was time to focus on the headliner. While it’s convenient to grab a bottle of Marsala wine from the grocery vinegar aisle, Parker’s Table wine buyer Kara Flaherty recommended spending a few dollars more for a good bottle of vino. “Cooking Marsala is just a lower quality level of drinking Marsala,” she said. “If you use a poor quality ingredient, you’re more likely to get poor results.” The bonus of using a drinkable wine is the option to serve it with dessert.

Paolo Lazzaroni & Figli Marsala, $14. Parker’s Table, 7118 Oakland Ave., Richmond Heights, 314.645.2050,

Veggie Marsala

4 servings

3 cups water
1¼ tsp. kosher salt, divided, plus more to taste
1 cup polenta, such as Bob’s Red Mill
1½ Tbsp. unsalted butter or vegan spread
½ lb. small Brussels sprouts, trimmed
4 Tbsp. canola oil, divided
1 lb. whole button mushrooms, quartered
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. flour
2 cups dry Marsala wine
1 Tbsp. dry sherry
1 tsp. fresh thyme
1∕8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley

• In a large saucepan over high heat, bring the water and ½ teaspoon salt to a boil. Slowly add the polenta and stir constantly until it returns to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the polenta is creamy, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the butter, set aside and keep warm.
• Meanwhile, cut the Brussels sprouts lengthwise into ¼-inch thick slices.
• In a large cast-iron or heavy skillet over medium-high heat, warm 2 tablespoons oil. Add the Brussels sprouts and 1∕8 teaspoon salt. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the sprouts are bright green, tender and some leaves are charred, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the sprouts, cover and set aside. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel.
• Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat and add the mushrooms in a single layer with ⅛ teaspoon salt. Sear undisturbed 3 minutes, until the mushrooms are browned on one side. Flip and sear another 2 minutes, until browned and soft. Remove the mushrooms, cover and set aside. Wipe out the skillet and return it to the stovetop.
• Warm the remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Saute the shallots until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 30 seconds, until fragrant. Sprinkle the shallots and garlic with the flour and saute 2 minutes. Add the Marsala, the sherry, the thyme, the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and the pepper, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer about 7 minutes, until the sauce is reduced by half. Return the mushrooms to the skillet and heat through. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper.
• Divide the polenta between the plates and add the mushroom mixture, then top with the Brussels sprouts. Garnish with the parsley before serving.