When famous American chef/restaurateur Thomas Keller was in Toronto last year to address an auditorium packed with chefs, foodies and other ardent fans, he listed what he considers the keys to success in cooking: “Patience, persistence, practice.”
These three ‘P’s, it seems to me, go together. To persist, you need patience. It’s a case of constantly tweaking a dish – and practising it over and over again – until it’s close to perfect.
In this case, I’m talking about that iconic concoction called Chicken Marbella – one that’s been a crowd-pleaser at dinner parties since it appeared in that ground-breaking “Silver Palate Cookbook” by Manhattan caterers Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso published in 1979.
Why this twist on the Middle Eastern tagine – a slow-cooked stew that usually combines meat with ingredients like dried fruit and olives – is almost a surefire hit is easy to explain. First, it’s easy to make and incorporates somewhat exotic but easy-to-find ingredients. Second, it combines delicious contrasts of taste and texture: juicy but crisp-on-the-outside chicken; salty olives; sweet, chewy prunes; tangy, sour capers; caramelized brown sugar and a luscious sauce made with just enough white wine to make a sauce.
But the original Silver Palate recipe needed tweaking. Its method was a tad cumbersome and required the tricky step of searing the marinated chicken. It calls for halved chickens. I find chicken breasts, thighs and drumsticks work better. In other words, patience, persistence and practice were required to come up with the ultimate Chicken Marbella – over many years.
Here are the results partly gleaned from a friend and terrific cook called Ruth Howard who served it at a dinner party some years ago when I lived in Stratford, Ont. You can also check a streamlined rendition from the folks at Cook’s Illustrated to be found on my blog: https://www.marionkane.com/recipe-2/toast-30th-anniversary-cookbook/ but this is my all-time favourite.
Best Ever Chicken Marbella
I use organic chicken pieces – thighs, drumsticks and breasts. Don’t use canned olives – they’re insipid in taste and mushy in texture. I like to serve this with buttery smashed potatoes or noodles and the delectable Fried Onions (below). This is even better the day after it’s made and has strong, robust flavour. Ideal for a dinner party.
8 to 10 lb/about 4 kg chicken pieces
1 head garlic, peeled, finely chopped
1/4 cup dried oregano
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup green and/or black cured olives
1/2 cup capers, drained, juice reserved
6 bay leaves
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander or parsley
In large bowl, combine chicken, garlic, oregano, prunes, olives, capers, bay leaves, salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil. Cover and chill overnight.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Arrange chicken in single layer in 2 or 3 roasting pans or baking dishes. Spoon prune/olive mixture evenly on top. Sprinkle chicken with brown sugar and pour wine around it.
Bake about 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting several times with pan juices, until chicken is nicely browned and cooked through. Remove and discard bay leaves. Transfer to warmed serving platter(s) and sprinkle with coriander or parsley.
Makes about 10 to 12 servings.
I discovered these superb fried onions – now a favourite in my cooking repertoire as an accompaniment to everything from burgers to Indian curry to the above Chicken Marbella – while browsing through the excellent cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. They are one component in a luscious vegetarian staple of that region called Mejadra.
Mejadra is a delicious combo of lentils and rice and aromatic spices that include cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon and allspice. Described in the book as “the best comfort food,” this dish looks simply sumptuous in the accompanying photo. Its crowning glory: a tangle of burnished brown fried onions. Like many of the best concoctions, this garnish for Mejadra is a find. As a side dish, it is sweet, simple and a mouth-watering symphony of taste and texture that really sings.
As usual dear fellow cooks, you’re welcome!
Fabulous Fried Onions
4 medium onions, peeled, thinly sliced
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
About 1 cup vegetable oil
Place onions in large bowl. Add flour and salt; toss to coat.
Heat oil in medium, heavy-bottomed skillet or saucepan over medium-high heat. Test by dropping in an onion slice; it should sizzle vigorously. Add about one-third of onion slices. Fry 5 to 7 minutes, stirring to separate occasionally with slotted spoon, until golden brown and crisp. Transfer to colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt. Repeat with remaining onions.
Makes about 4 to 6 side-dish servings.