I Finally Tried Chicken Marbella, the ’80s Classic, and I Have Some Thoughts!
It’s hard to find cookbooks that actually do something. If a cookbook is lucky it inspires a bit of conversation among the food-erati; it adorns bookshelves and coffee tables; it makes Ree Drummond or Ina Garten even richer. But rare is the cookbook that actually sells enough to make a dent in the way mass America cooks.
If you want to talk about cookbooks that can actually still be tasted today, you have to talk about The Silver Palate, published in 1982 by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso. Released at a moment when Parmesan and pesto were exotic, and French cuisine reigned at the top of the gourmet charts, this book has sold millions of copies, thanks to its exuberant, freewheeling fusion of Provencal, Asian, Mediterranean, and other (at the time) novel flavors.
And it is best represented through its signature dish, the one that speaks of special occasions to millions of food-lovers: chicken Marbella, where prunes meet capers, and chicken meets your mother’s dinner table.
What Is the Silver Palate Chicken Marbella?
Chicken Marbella was already a star by the time the The Silver Palate was published, a favorite at the Upper West Side food and catering shop that gave the cookbook its name. It appears in a “Country Weekend Lunch” menu on that same page in the book, alongside cheese straws, semolina bread, lime mousse, and chocolate chip cookies. Fancy comfort food, ’80s-style (may it never go out of fashion).
- Get the recipe: Silver Palate’s Chicken Marbella at Epicurious
- Buy the book: The Silver Palate Cookbook at Amazon
The recipe itself is a one-bowl wonder, sized for a crowd. It calls for no fewer than four chickens, cut up into pieces. (Ten pounds of chicken at least.)
The chicken is tossed with a very rustic blend of pureed garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar, dried oregano, and bay leaves, then tossed with the famous elements that give this dish its character: prunes, olives, and capers. Mediterranean mish-mash!
An overnight marinade is a must, and makes this also an easy make-ahead dish; it’s great to put it all together and then in the fridge for easy roasting the next day.
When it’s time to roast, the authors call for spreading the chicken between pans, then sprinkling a rather large quantity of brown sugar over top and dousing with wine. It bakes low and slow for nearly an hour, and then the authors reiterate that the chicken is very good cold: “When prepared with small drumsticks and wings, it makes a delicious appetizer.”
My Honest Review of Silver Palate Chicken Marbella
Well, I have been putting off this moment for as long as I can, but I have to confess: For all its years of dinner party success, I just couldn’t love chicken Marbella.
What was wrong? Well, first of all, it was too sweet for my taste. Reviewers on Epicurious complain that this version of the recipe is “wrong” and calls for too much sugar; I can confirm however that the book (which I cooked from directly) does indeed call for a full cup. But other friends who have protested my take on this classic also indignantly said, “Oh yes I don’t use all that sugar!”
Well, now I know.
Beyond this, the roasting method for this chicken, in our age of high-flavor, high-smoke-point, barbecue-tainted palates, seemed weak. The chicken skin stayed flaccid instead of crisp; the chicken itself was fine and tender, but not melting. The sweetness of the sugar and the prunes lacked a balance; the vinegar and salt didn’t bite enough to compensate.
It was a dish that was delicious in parts, but not so stunning that I would put it onto my table without tweaks. It might just be me (I mean, this is CHICKEN MARBELLA; how dare I!), but while I love its story and have the utmost respect for Sheila Lukins and the way she and her partners swept new flavors onto American plates so quickly, the dish felt of its age — and that age is not now.
And maybe that is really the story here: We’ve moved on for the better from chicken Marbella. The mix of Mediterranean tastes here feel clumsy; exotic when they were published, probably, but we’ve moved on to more nuanced presentations of Mediterranean cooking, with punchier flavors and grounded ingredients. (Hello, Ottolenghi!)
But we may very well not have those voices and those flavors if The Silver Palate hadn’t opened the door. I’m grateful to have tried this little piece of culinary history at last. It was a taste of a time where food was exciting again, a place to show off and have fun and get wild with prunes, capers, and olives.
If You’re Making Chicken Marbella, a Few Tips
1. Scale it down: The sheer, catering-inspired size of this recipe is overwhelming; my first recommendation is to immediately size it down to normal-kitchen proportions by halving it.
2. Cut down the brown sugar: Epicurious reviewers suggest cutting the sugar down drastically to 1/4 cup, which is my plan should I ever make this again.
3. Roast at a higher heat: I was a little taken aback by how pallid the chicken was, and I think it needed more heat to bring out the chicken’s flavor, which would balance the intensity of the prunes and olives.
Have you ever made chicken Marbella? Do you love it in all its proto-gourmet glory? Tell me what you love, how you make it, and what memories it holds for you.
This recipe was a contender in our March Chicken Champions recipe showdown, in the fancy dinner party bracket. Check out that showdown and its competitors below.