Soon after The Silver Palate Cookbook became a smash hit in 1981, one of its iconic dishes, Chicken Marbella, became a staple of New York dinner parties. More than 30 years later, the recipeâ€”with its aromatic blend of prunes, olives, capers, white wine, brown sugar, and tons of oregano and garlicâ€”endures not only as a main course for all sorts of gatherings, but as a go-to entrĂ©e for the festive meals at many familiesâ€™ Passover Seders.
Iâ€™ve served it to my own Seder guests for more than a decade and, after some intensive searching on Google and emailing with friends and acquaintances, I discovered that Iâ€™m far from alone. My childhood friend Debbie Stadiem Kesslerâ€™s mother-in-law from Harrisburg, Pa., first brought the dish to one of Kesslerâ€™s Seders in Great Falls, Va., on a Passover some 15 years ago. It became a tradition for Tablet Publisher Jesse Oxfeldâ€™s mother, Ellen Oxfeld, of West Orange, N.J., around 10 years ago when she turned to her copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook in search of â€śsomething differentâ€ť for her Seder. Although Fran Lebowitz once said, in a Passover-themed interview with the New York Times, â€śItâ€™s entirely possible that in the early â€™50s, a very large brisket was delivered to our family and weâ€™re still eating it,â€ť her family also ate Chicken Marbella, according to Lebowitzâ€™s cousin (and my friend) Elaine Koufman, who hosted many of those Seders.
The late Sheila Lukins, who co-authored The Silver Palate Cookbook and three other cookbooks with Julee Rosso, was well aware of Chicken Marbellaâ€™s Passover appeal, even if she didnâ€™t originally envision the dish becoming a Seder tradition. â€śAt Passover thereâ€™s a lot of cooking to do,â€ť she told Judy Bart Kancigor in a 2008 interview in the Orthodox Unionâ€™s Shabbat Shalom. â€śThe Marbella is so delicious and easy to prepare ahead of time.â€ť
Joan Nathan told me recently that while sheâ€™s never served Chicken Marbella at a Sederâ€”not even the year that Lukins was a guest at her houseâ€”she wasnâ€™t surprised that others do, since â€śitâ€™s popular for everythingâ€”potlucks, weddings.â€ť The recipe has become so popular, in fact, that Nathan included it in her 2005 book The New American Cooking.
In 2011, a Chicago Sun-Times article declared Chicken Marbella â€śa Jewish holiday and Shabbat dinner favorite.â€ť And itâ€™s no wonder, with its exotic yet somehow nostalgia-inducing combination of sweet, salty, briny, aromatic ingredients, plus the convenience of doing most of the prep work in advance and marinating overnight, then simply baking it the day of the Seder, leaving hosts free to worry about everything but the main course.
Lukins and Rosso met when Rosso, who was in advertising, hired Lukins, who was in catering, to do a press party. An enduring partnership was born. They opened The Silver Palate, their tiny gourmet take-out shop on Manhattanâ€™s Upper West Side, soon after the blackout in the summer of 1977, offering three entrees: baked tenderloin of beef, baked ham, and Chicken Marbella. â€śThe Chicken Marbella flew off the counter,â€ť according to Rosso, who now calls herself â€śchief cook and bottle washerâ€ť at the Wickwood Inn, a bed-and-much-more-than-breakfast in Saugatuck, Mich., that she and her husband bought 22 years ago.
The dish, Rosso told me in a phone interview, was inspired first of all by the cuisine she and Lukins encountered while traveling in Spain, where meat dishes are often sparked with olives, and in Morocco, where they loved the tagines, rich braises of meat or poultry or fish with vegetables and sometimes dried or fresh fruits, named for the round ceramic dishes with cone-shaped lids in which theyâ€™re traditionally slow-baked. Both Lukins and Rosso had also cooked extensively from Paula Wolfertâ€™s now classic Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, which came out in 1973. â€śThe prunes were very much Marrakeshâ€”the tagines,â€ť Rosso said. â€śAnd the green olives were Marbellaâ€”Spain.â€ť
But there was more. â€śSheila was Jewish,â€ť Rosso said, â€śand I remember when I first met her, that was the first time this old WASP ever ate meat with fruit. She would make me a sweet-and-sour brisket that her mother used to make.â€ť
Lukinsâ€™ grandparents came from Russia. In her All Around the World Cookbook she wrote: â€śI canâ€™t remember which desire came first, my desire to visit their far-away land or my wish to cook like my grandmother. Throughout the years, those memories blended.â€ť So, perhaps, did the culinary influence of her Ashkenazic forebears, who cooked meat with prunes and potatoes and called it tzimmes, blend with that of Mediterranean cooks, including Sephardic Jewish ones, who for centuries had combined meat with fruits.
Claudia Roden, the author of The New Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food, explained that the meat-with-fruit tradition originated in the cuisine of ancient Persia and traveled to Baghdad, which became the capital of the Arab empire, and then to North Africa and Spain when Arab armies conquered those parts of the world. â€śThe Jews who lived in Muslim lands adopted the tastes and ways of the homelands they were living in,â€ť Roden told me via email, â€świth some differences.â€ť
As to whether the Ashkenazic tzimmes and the Sephardic meat-with-fruit traditions are at all related, Roden said that although Sephardic Jews did not often migrate to Eastern Europe, â€śthere could well be a connection, because there was contact between communities and also trade in dried fruit.â€ť
My theory is that itâ€™s not only the lack of last-minute fuss that makes Chicken Marbella a natural for Passover and all other Jewish holidays. The dish resonates in a far deeper, more subliminal sense: Its flavors and aromas throb with Sephardic soul and Ashkenazic soulâ€”this dish covers both bases. Its celebrity fans include Matt Lauer and Ivanka Trump, who cooks it â€śnow and then,â€ť her husband Jared Kushner, publisher of the New York Observer, told me via email. And the 2007 release of The Silver Palate Cookbook 25th Anniversary Edition gave it fresh momentum.
As cooks have introduced variations on Chicken Marbella, these culinary cousins have gained in popularity, too. Sue Millen, who served Chicken Marbella at a 1998 Seder I attended in Hamden, Ct., received the following bulletin from her sister-in-law in 2001: â€śE-mailed this recipe to my mah-jongg ladies for Passover. Thought maybe you, too, were ready for a change from Chicken Marbella.â€ť The recipe was for Chicken Pandora, from Joan Nathanâ€™s Jewish Cooking in America. (â€śI actually like it better than Marbella,â€ť Millen told me recently, adding that sheâ€™d just frozen a batch for this yearâ€™s Seder.) According to Nathan, Chicken Pandora, which features artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes as opposed to Chicken Marbellaâ€™s green olives and prunes, is now the most popular recipe in her book.
Sun-dried tomatoes also figure in Kancigorâ€™s adaptation in Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes From the Rabinowitz Family, along with apricots (not prunes) and the addition of basil.
I think of Chicken Marrakesh, from The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook, as the flip side of Chicken Marbella. It contains black olives instead of green, apricots and figs instead of prunes, thyme instead of oregano, and red wine instead of whiteâ€”plus pecans, cumin, ginger, and green peppercorns.
Just a few weeks ago, Florence Fabricant (who, incidentally, thought up the name â€śThe Silver Palate,â€ť according to the cookbookâ€™s introduction) weighed in with a recipe, in the Dining section of the New York Times, for Chicken Tagine With Prunes and Olivesâ€”taking Marbella right back to Marrakesh.
Even Cookâ€™s Illustrated has got in on the act. Its feature a few years ago â€śUpdating Chicken Marbellaâ€ť attempted to achieve â€ścrispier skin and more balanced flavor,â€ť via a typically meticulous series of experiments that finally resulted in jettisoning the marinade and coating the chicken with a prune-and-olive-based paste enhanced with anchovy and red pepper flakes.
Finally, thereâ€™s Roasted Chicken With Clementines and Arak in the recently published, best-selling Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, whose impact on culinary culture today is reminiscent of Rossoâ€™s and Lukinsâ€™ in the pre-foodie era. This highly aromatic new take on marinate-and-bake chicken just might prove to have the Marbella magic and staying power. In addition to the clementines (thinly sliced) and arak (or ouzo, or pernod), the marinade includes fresh orange and lemon juice, grain mustard, sliced fennel, fennel seeds, thyme leaves, and a bit of light-brown sugar.
But however good these more recent descendants of Chicken Marbella may be, at Passover I stick with the original from The Silver Palate Cookbookâ€”but I use half the garlic, at least twice the prunes and olives, and sometimes skinless, boneless chicken parts instead of whole, quartered chickens. You can cut back on the brown sugar, too, and not ruin the dish. In fact, itâ€™s almost impossible to ruin the dishâ€”yet another of its attractions.
Rosso told me that she and Lukins liked serving Chicken Marbella with Nutted Wild Rice (also from The Silver Palate Cookbook)â€”eliminating the yellow raisins from that recipe, however. Which would work for a Sephardic Seder. Otherwise, itâ€™s great with quinoa. And if you have any leftovers, just put them back in the refrigerator; theyâ€™re even better the next day.
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