On cooking and chicken marsala

There was a time when we ate plenty of box dinners. Our worst offense (and even if it was placed in front of me today, I would probably eat it) was generic Hamburger Helper from Meijer.

Our poison was the stroganoff. Compared to name brands, the Meijer brand was saucier.

And deadly.

On the side of the box, most of the ingredients were unpronounceable. Things like monosodiumcatastrophe and hydexterousflammableshame.

Obviously, things the human body was never meant to process.

I'm not saying we went extreme couponing and stashed a garage-full of those things, but our eating and cooking wasn't always, well, the healthiest.

A few years back, something changed, and with the help of food-focused magazines and Pinterest, we started cooking more -- from scratch. Well, if it was a pasta night, I didn't make the noodles from scratch. So, maybe "from scratch" isn't quite right.

We started cooking more without the help of a simple one-step box: a cup of milk, some water, this pouch of powder, a little bit of hamburger and, wallah, instant heart attack!

Here's the thing. The time it takes to put together one of those box meals, we can whip up something healthier, lighter and we actually know what all the ingredients are. That flavor additive we just put in our food was called a seasoning. The color that's been produced is natural, since it was just a whole vegetable.

Famous UK chef Jamie Oliver has even stated that moving around the kitchen and going through the actual process of cooking is good for you.

Now that we've been all about cooking for ourselves from "scratch" these past few years, we're huge fans of trying anything or cooking without a recipe.

We both have our specialties, and Steph is better at the science of putting flavors together than I am, but I'm getting better, but to cook without a recipe is liberating.

It's like that moment when I finally balance on my bike without training wheels -- or when I could ride my bike with no hands.

My most recent accomplishment was figuring out Marsala sauce.

I'm snooty when it comes to a Marsala wine sauce, and I won't just order it anywhere.

My favorite versions have been a creamy rendition, where the flavor has hints of sweet mixed in with that elegant richness heavy cream provides.

The worst Chicken Marsala version came to me in the form of a breaded chicken breast with a drizzle of Marsala wine reduction. The thick syrup was more bitter than sweet, and I remember crying over the dish just to season it with my tears.

I've even order Marsala from the big-wig Indianapolis Italian restaurant The Milano Inn (and I do love my Milano Inn -- you would too if you enjoy totally classic Italian family cooking), but it just wasn't quite what I wanted -- I've been ruined by the cream. Their touch was definitely mainstream: without cream, lots of mushrooms, and I would order it again, for sure, but now that I can make it on my own -- I don't know if I'll ever order it at a restaurant again.

I think that's my favorite part: I don't have to pay $12 to $30 ever again for a good bowl of noodles in Marsala sauce, for Chicken Marsala or even Mushroom Marsala Pizza because I have done all of those with the same bottle of Marsala wine, and I still have plenty left for a few more rounds.

I haven't battled 1,000 with my Marsala recipe, I'm still trying to find my footing, but after dealing with plumbing issues this past Valentine's Day, and a bored chicken dinner the night before, I cooked up Chicken Marsala for Steph and, although we both wanted it to be way saucier than it was (we both are goobers for a good sauce-drenching), the flavor was spot-on.

I do believe I am getting there.

I've cooked up Marsala many different ways so far.

My first foray into Marsala sauce was because I wanted to do something different with pizza. I never use pizza sauce, but instead create a garlic butter sauce. I used that garlic butter sauce as a base for many other sauces when I want to play around without a recipe, and it was helpful once more with my America's Test Kitchen attempt at a creamy Marsala to put on my pizza. It was definitely saucy, and it was overloaded with mushrooms.

That same recipe has been served over pasta, and my last attempt was mentioned above for Valentine's day -- without cream. I wanted to see if I could go classic. And I did.

Eventually, I'll need to write it down so I can follow my own recipe, but until they, I'll continue to ride without my training wheels.