Chicken Marbella 2.0 - No. 17
Great recipes - like celebrity romances - never go out of style
One of my favorite recipes, something my husband requests and my children devoured in spite of it containing prunes and olives, is the universally loved but super-quirky Chicken Marbella. Born in an Upper West Side Manhattan gourmet take-out shop known as the Silver Palate in the summer of 1977, it became the dinner party darling of the ‘80s and has never quite gone out of style.
I’ve been making Chicken Marbella for a solid 20 years at least. Granted, I don’t make it the same as I did in the beginning, but I am reminded each time it perfumes my kitchen as it cooks why the late Sheila Lukins was a genius when she concocted it. And why I love it so.
What is it about great recipes that never go out of style? Why are some recipes just keepers?
What characteristics do they need to have? Are they easy to assemble? Can the recipe be prepped or baked completely ahead for company? Do they appeal to all and yet, at the same time, are slightly unusual so they get your attention?
Correct answer? All of the above.
Chicken Marcella is easy, delicious, and surprising. But the real staying power of this recipe has to do with the irresistible alchemy of the olives, prunes, wine, garlic, oregano, and brown sugar alongside the chicken.
It is at the same time salty, briny, sweet, tangy, and everything you crave all in one mouthful.
The story of Chicken Marbella goes something like this. Sheila Lukins created it, naming it after the coastal resort town of Marbella on Spain’s southern Costa del Sol. With the Spanish olives, the Moroccan use of dried fruit, and interestingly, a unique Sephardic Jewish pairing of meat with dried fruit, it was a step out of everyone’s comfort zones flavor-wise when first created. The ‘80s were awash in raspberry vinaigrettes, pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes, and the Silver Palate definitely made those household words. But chicken with prunes and olives?
Début that recipe in middle America, and I’m not sure it would have been as readily accepted. But New York was just the right place to introduce it to the busy legions who would serve it to dinner party guests ready to fall in love and host their own Chicken Marbella parties. And then, in 1982, the recipe appeared in the mega-bestselling Silver Palate cookbook and the rest of the world could make it at home.
How I make Chicken Marbella today
When my kids were young, I created a shortcut Chicken Marbella using chicken tenders, prunes, olives, and an olive salad you can buy in the jar on the pickle aisle. Marinate the chicken in a good oil and vinegar dressing, bake, and you’ve got dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes.
Before this rather revolutionary shortcut, I had prepared it the way the Silver Palate ladies first intended, using cut-up skin-on, bone-in chickens and marinating the mixture overnight in red wine vinegar and olive oil in the fridge.
Now I’ve settled on a recipe that is someplace in the middle.
Today I bake it a little hotter, at 375 and often 400 degrees. This creates more flavor - the caramelization and condensation of cooking juices. I am also careful to bake it on a large sheet pan so I can separate everything so there’s room in between the chicken pieces which helps with that caramelization. I’ve found too small of a pan crowds the ingredients which steam-cooks instead of roasts.
If you want to crank up that flavor even more, you can choose a dark pan like one made by Great Jones or the dark blue shallow roasting pans that come with some ovens.
And about that chicken - today I use 1 1/2 pounds of skinless, boneless chicken thighs and skinless legs. Or some bone-in, skinned chicken breasts I cut with a heavy knife into two or three pieces. While I know cooking chicken with the skin on does add a lot of flavor to a recipe, I opt for skinless. It’s just easier.
Prep the recipe right on the pan
If you like, follow the Silver Palate recipe of piling everything into a large bowl and tucking it in the fridge to marinate. Or you can do as I do now and just prep the whole thing right on the baking pan.
I arrange the chicken on the pan and then scatter on the aromatics - garlic, oregano, bay leaves - and then the important stuff - the olives, capers, (I still love a 1/2 cup olive salad), and lots of prunes, twice as many prunes as the original recipe called for. (When you taste the prunes after roasting with the chicken and soaking in the brown sugar and wine, you will see what I mean. You need a lot of prunes!)
Today I also add a second dried fruit like apricots or mandarin slices to the recipe for more color. Then I drizzle with lemon juice or vinegar and good olive oil, and cover the pan with plastic wrap and chill overnight or at least 3 to 4 hours.
When you are ready to cook, you just heat the oven, pull the pan from the fridge and sprinkle over the brown sugar - I use about 1/3 cup, but add as much as you like.
And then pour whatever white wine you’ve got open in the fridge over the top. Bake until the chicken is cooked through and is crispy around the edges.
It’s such a beautiful recipe!
And yes, that is another attribute of great recipes that never go out of style. They look good and make you look good, too.
For company we serve it with steamed rice, creamy grits or polenta or farro. Or just place sliced crusty French bread on the table so everyone can soak up the fabulous juices. Add a green salad, and it’s dinner.
It seems great recipes do begin with a good story. They are easy to prep. They’re fun to tweak to your own evolving palate. And they’re popular. Place them on the buffet table, and your guests will be like eager paparazzi who’ve just spotted Bennifer 2.0. And maybe that’s another reason we love Chicken Marbella so much. It reminds us of another time, Ben and Jennifer, and the way life used to be…
I love Chicken Marbella not because of its star power but because it’s as satisfying on a blazing hot day in July as it is a dreary cold one in January. The recipe smells good while it’s cooking. I get excited about it, it awakens my palate, and best of all....it tastes even better leftover the next day.
Now, that’s a great recipe!
Do you make Chicken Marbella?
If you could cast a recipe for another installment of Great Recipes that never go out of style, what would it be?
And now, that recipe….
Chicken Marbella 2.0
If you follow my ratios below, you can use just about any chicken pieces you like. And as much chicken as you like. Just make sure the pieces are of uniform size to assure they cook through at the same time. And make sure you don’t crowd the pan. You can definitely omit the olive salad - I just like the ease of it, and it does add a lot of flavor. And if you don’t have time to let the recipe marinate in the fridge before baking, it’s ok to just go ahead and bake it. (But promise me you’ll marinate next time, right?) For entertaining, save a step and make this whole recipe the day ahead, and reheat in a gentle oven - 300 - covered in foil, until warmed through.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Prep: 10 to 15 minutes
Marinate: 4 hours to overnight
Bake: 45 to 50 minutes
2 1/2 pounds chicken, a mix of skinless boneless thighs and skinless legs
6 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups pitted prunes
1/2 cup dried apricots or mandarin slices
1/2 cup green olives of your choice
1/4 cup capers
1/2 cup olive salad
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar
1/2 cup good olive oil
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white wine
Fresh herbs like oregano, parsley, or cilantro for garnishing
Place the chicken pieces on a rimmed sheet pan, and sprinkle the chicken pieces with garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and bay leaves. Scatter the prunes, apricots, green olives, and capers over the top. If using the olive salad, spoon it on top of the chicken. Drizzle with the lemon juice, and then with the olive oil. With a fork, turn the chicken pieces over once and then back right-side up to get some seasonings on the undersides. Cover the pan with plastic wrap, and place it in the fridge at least 4 hours or overnight.
When you are ready to cook, heat the oven to 375 - or if your oven runs a little cool, to 400 degrees F. Remove the plastic wrap from the pan. Scatter the brown sugar on top of the chicken. Pour the wine on top of the sugar. Place the pan in the oven.
Bake the chicken until the pieces test done and when the edges of the chicken are crispy, about 45 to 50 minutes. The top will brown as well. If you want to increase the browning, place the pan under the broiler for a minute or so, watching so it does not burn.
Remove the pan from the oven, and with a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, olives, and capers to a serving platter. Spoon the pan juices on top and around the chicken. Garnish with fresh herbs. Serve warm or at room temperature with rice, polenta, grits, or farro.
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Tea cakes. Part sugar cookie, part little spongy cake, part nostalgia. I went on a search for the best tea cake recipe, and I’ll share what I found. Not a subscriber?