Sunday, February 10, 2013

Chicken Marbella

My grandmother often expressed concern about the number of children at my parent’s dinner table every night.  OK, we were numerous by today’s standards, but no more than many other families in the neighborhood back then.  Let’s just say, my parents threw a dinner party for eight every night at 7pm. 

The way my grandmother expressed her concern was practical and effective. She took advantage of supermarkets on Long Island that were in the midst of price wars to shop whole chicken sales.  Sometimes she found them for as little as 17¢ a pound. (Granted, it was the 1970s.)

She froze the chickens and presented my mother with cardboard boxes of them whenever we saw her.  Thee gifts resulted in us eating chicken at least three, maybe four times a week for many years.

As you can imagine, my family has a number of great chicken recipes, but most often, two small chickens were roasted side by side.  Simple and good. 

When Silver Palate’s Chicken Marbella recipe was published in 1982, it was a big success largely because it, too, was simple and good.  Albeit with many more ingredients, Chicken Marbella arrived just as American palates were ready for a more multi-cultural taste experience.  A little Middle Eastern, sometimes described as Spanish-derived (which bases much of its food heritage in the Middle East), Chicken Marbella took ingredients common to the American pantry and combined them in an exotic way.  All of a sudden, salty and bitter flavors like olives and capers were added to our Sweet and Sour Chicken appetites.  We had a new idea about what balance in a recipe could be. 

Twenty-plus years later, home cooks and chefs write that they are adjusting the Silver Palate’s classic Chicken Marbella recipe to reduce the sweetness and add a bit of spicy heat. 

The result is balanced flavors on the tongue, in just the right proportion for you.  Complexity is intriguing to the palate but too much can get muddy.  What made Chicken Marbella popular was that the flavors were kept pure and the flavors balanced. 

To be honest, I made Chicken Marbella for the first time this week.  I just never got around to this particular recipe until some dried prunes, capers and green olives called from the same shelf of my pantry.  Having enjoyed chicken in Spain around the time the recipe was first published in the U.S., I had a pretty good idea of how the dish tasted and saw its popular appeal.  Each of my Spanish cookbooks has a regional dish combining briny olives with oranges as in Andulusia's Pollo con Aceitunas y Naranjas Agrias  (Chicken with Olives and Bitter Orange) or olives and prunes with in the classic duck dish (Anec) from Cataluna. Even meatless tapas that combine salty anchovies with olives and sun dried tomatoes (salty, sour, sweet) speak to our love of complex yet pure flavor.  

As a guide to how you might build your own recipe with simple balance, here is a breakdown of what the major ingredients of Chicken Marbella bring to the palate, silver or otherwise:
  • sweet: prunes, brown sugar
  • salty: capers
  • sour (acidity): white wine, red wine vinegar
  • bitter: green olives
  • savory (umami): the chicken, garlic, herbs, olive oil
Note: sour is to bitter as lemon juice is to lemon peel

So that’s my homage to Silver Palate Chicken Marbella and to my grandmother’s frugal shopping habits that have instilled in our family an enduring love of poultry.  For a copy of the original Sliver Palate recipe click here or check out a copy of the classic cookbook.  It’s still in print.

I will admit to one or two changes to the original recipe that makes it even simpler than the original.  I put all the ingredients into the marinade at once—I do not hold back the brown sugar or white wine.  After marinating for about 8 hours, I dump the whole thing in a shallow baking dish so the skin peaks above the juice for cooking.  I also use only chicken thighs.  Even the most ardent white meat lovers enjoy it, provided it is cooked to 165˚F.  I remove the chicken and place it under the broiler for the skin to brown a bit more.  Meanwhile, I skim the fat off the juices.  These are minor bits of work considering I did next to nothing to prep the meal.  Added time, about 2 minutes.

Could be a simple mid-week Valentine's Dinner......