BACK IN the early 1970s, a lot of us were competitively cooking our way through Julia Child’s tomes (Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume 2 came out in 1970). Dazzling for sure, but a bit rigorous. (And good luck finding shallots at the Piggly Wiggly in 1972.) But finally came 1979-80 and The Silver Palate Cookbook, brainchild of the tiny Silver Palate food shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which turned us on to imaginative flavor combos (Raspberry Chicken, anyone? Beet and Apple Purée?). Less technique, more fun. Soon that was the book to beat; even Julia had great things to say about authors and business partners Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso.
I recently unearthed my Workman Publishing paperback of the Silver Palate from a dusty carton and find stains (presumably olive oil or wine) all over the page for Chicken Marbella. Which just proves to me how little I’ve changed, in a good way, over the years. I’ve recently made the dish three times in as many weeks; obsessive, I suppose, but I tweak it each time depending on which ingredients I’m suddenly out of.
There are recipes all over the Internet for this easy-bake dish. Many credit Silver Palate before going their own way, as do I. What follows, then, isn’t the original but my variation on the theme. Mind you, the real Chicken Marbella calls for olives; I don’t like olives, never have. I use them when cooking the dish for others, but just for myself I leave them out. I’m planning to add dried apricots next time to cozy up to the succulent prunes in the recipe, but pretty soon I’m going to have to stop calling it Chicken Marbella, maybe Chicken With Prunes and Apricots but No Olives. I’m not wild about capers either, but the pickled quality of the fruit and their juice provides the tartness that keeps the dish from being simply sweet.
The original also calls for marinating the chicken parts overnight; I feel I can get away with less. Before I go completely off the reservation, give this a try—especially if you haven’t done the dish since the ’80s. The Silver Palate Cookbook presented it as a party dish, serving 10 to 12; my more modest needs have me limiting it to four boneless chicken thighs, enough for two meals for one or one meal for two. Of course you can do it with chicken breasts, but the thighs have more density and a meatier flavor. The recipe is eminently expandable and contractable (and my notion of amounts is also quite, shall we say, loose).
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, or as much garlic as you want, puréed (or as close as you can get) in a food processor
1 or 2 teaspoons of dried oregano
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup of olive oil
1/4 cup of red wine vinegar (yes, white wine vinegar will work too)
4 to 6 pitted prunes
4 large pitted green olives, if you must
2 tablespoons of capers, with a bit of the brine they’re bottled in
1 bay leaf
4 boneless chicken thighs, with or without skin
About 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, preferably light brown
1/2 cup of white or red wine (I use whatever’s open)
Finely chopped Italian parsley, if you have some
Combine the puréed garlic, oregano, salt and pepper, olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives if using, capers and bay leaf in a bowl or a heavy-duty Zip-Loc bag. Add the chicken thighs and marinate for as along as you can (stirring occasionally or rotating the plastic bag to get all the chicken well covered).
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Arrange the chicken pieces in a baking dish and pour the marinade over them. Sprinkle the chicken with the brown sugar. Pour the wine around the chicken so as not to dislodge the marinade or sugar. Bake for about an hour, or until juices run clear. Serve on a platter with the juices and marinade poured over. Sprinkle with parsley, if you like.
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