There are times when, out of the blue, a memory will hit me so strongly that it almost knocks me off my feet. Usually it’s not an important memory by any means, but rather a fleeting flashback to the way certain streets in Berkeley looked, or how the moon hung in the sky during a late-night drive back from Montreal one May weekend, or Friday evenings in junior high when my mom and I would stop by Randall’s on the way home from piano lessons to buy me a petit four for breakfast the next morning (my mom ROCKS). These instances only last a few moments, but in the aftermath I’m left feeling physically dizzy, a bit puzzled, and a little sad.
This dish is a blast from the past, but one which I have no memories of. In the late 1970s, bell bottoms were in, Star Wars introduced the world to the Force and a certain Jedi master with curious speech patterns, and my dad had a horrible haircut. I had not yet made my appearance in the world. And in New York City, a gourmet take-out shop named the Silver Palate opened its doors. It would go on to become wildly successful, eventually spawning a cookbook that became essential in every American kitchen. This dish, Chicken Marbella, was the Silver Palate’s signature entree.
There’s a reason why, three-and-a-half decades after Chicken Marbella made its debut, it remains one of the most-loved and most blogged-about dishes. It’s one of those recipes where the outcome far exceeds the effort you put into it. All you have to do is coat the chicken with a simple marinade, dust it with brown sugar and drizzle some white wine before placing it in the oven, bake it for a little under an hour, and suddenly you have a dish of moist, tender chicken swimming in the most delectable of pan juices. The olives, capers, dried prunes, and brown sugar provide an interesting interplay of salty and sweet, and it should be noted that the prunes are a particular delight because they are cooked to the point where they almost melt on your tongue.
Chicken Marbella is, by the way, an excellent main course to serve at a dinner party because much of the prep work can be done the night before, and you can tend to other tasks while it’s baking in the oven. It’s something that you can throw you together between the time you get home from work and when your friends show up, and even have time to frost a cake while you’re at it. I served it with a mixed green salad and some wild mushroom linguine from my favorite local pasta shop. Along with a couple of bottles of good wine and some enthusiastic – though, um, not always classy – conversation, we had a fantastic meal.
Slightly adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook
While the original recipe calls for four 2 1/2 lb. whole chickens, I used about 4-5 lbs. of drumsticks, thighs, and breasts. This is a very versatile recipe and can be used with just about any combination of chicken parts, including boneless ones.
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed (I minced mine)
1/4 cup dried oregano
Salt and black pepper to taste
4 chickens (2 1/2 lbs. each), quartered
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, finely chopped (I omitted)
Place chicken in a single layer in a baking pan.
Combine olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers and juice, bay leaves, garlic, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Pour over chicken and coat evenly (it’s easiest to get in there with your hands). Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them. Bake, basting frequently with pan juices, for about 50 minutes to 1 hour, until chicken yields clear yellow juice (not red or pink) when pricked with a fork.
At this point, the original recipe directs you to use a slotted spoon to transfer the chicken, prunes, olives, and capers to a serving platter, moisten with a few spoonfuls of pan juice, sprinkle with parsley/cilantro, and pass the remaining pan juices in a gravy boat. I simply served my chicken from the baking pan itself.