Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chicken Marbella...Memories of the Past

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The other day, as I was looking at recipes for an extraordinary chili to add to the Super Bowl Menus And Recipes, I was reminded of an old standby, a favorite of the l980's...Chicken Marbella.  Oh my, how times have changed, and yet again, how good recipes can withstand the passage of time!

The Silver Palate Cookbook is one of the top 10 best-selling cookbooks of all time. Sheila Lukins and her business partner, Julee Rosso, wrote it two years after they opened one of the nation’s first gourmet takeout shops of the same name in New York City. The book helped demystify and popularize gourmet cooking for millions of home cooks upon its publication in 1982 and continues to do so today. It is considered THE American cookbook of the Eighties. I don’t know anyone who doesn't have a dog-eared, sauce-splattered copy of it in their kitchen arsenal. The recipes are innovative and accessible at the same time, using unique combinations of ingredients and advocating rich and bold flavors with a Mediterranean flair.

Chicken Marbella was perhaps the most popular main dish served at the store and perhaps the main reason most of us bought the book in the first place (but not the only!).The melange of ingredients in this recipe — chicken pieces, olives, capers, apricots and prunes with cilantro, garlic, oregano and brown sugar cooked in white wine — was so enticingly different from the standard dinner-party fare of the day that it was a sensation every time it appeared on the menu. Slightly exotic, the dish won over home cooks because it looked beautiful,  tasted and smelled heavenly, and, perhaps most important, it was simple to make. You could just throw all the ingredients into a Pyrex casserole dish and marinade overnight, then bake for about an hour. It was, and still is, foolproof.

Sheila Lukins invented the dish in her pre-Silver Palate days, she said, when she was catering for single men in New York.

“I needed stuff that could be put together, marinated and then baked off the next day,” she recalled in a phone interview.

Lukins liked to cook sweet and savory dishes, like those she sampled on her travels in Spain and Morocco.

“That combination of fruits and olives, brown sugar and wine, it was just kind of a natural for me,” she said. “But it was very unusual here. It was shocking.”

Once the cookbook was published, the Chicken Marbella turned up at dinner parties and picnics (it’s good at room temperature, too) all over the nation. The cookbook went on to sell 2.5 million copies and it is still going strong with a Silver Edition published a short time ago.  I own that one too.

Sheila Lukins died last August, at age 66, of brain cancer.  Here's to you Sheila and thanks for the memories!

Makes about 10 servings


4 chickens, 2½ pounds each, quartered, or 16 pieces, breasts, thighs, drumsticks

1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed

¼ cup dried oregano

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

½ cup red wine vinegar

½ cup olive oil

1 cup pitted prunes

1 cup dried apricots (optional)

½ cup pitted Spanish green olives

½ cup capers with a bit of juice

6 bay leaves

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white wine

¼ cup Italian parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped


In a large bowl combine chicken quarters, garlic, oregano, pepper and coarse salt to taste, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Arrange chicken in a single layer in one or two large shallow baking pans and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them.

Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently with pan juices. Chicken is done when thigh pieces, pricked with a fork at their thickest, yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice.

With a slotted spoon, transfer chicken, prunes, olives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of pan juices and sprinkle generously with parsley or cilantro. Pass remaining juices in a sauceboat.

To serve Chicken Marbella cold, cool to room temperature in cooking juices before transferring to a serving platter. If chicken has been covered and refrigerated, allow it to return to room temperature before serving. Spoon some of the reserved juice over chicken.

— From “The Silver Palate” (Workman, 1982)


  1. Nice post. Yes, I have a dog-earred and sauce-stained copy in my kitchen. Haven't looked at it in a while but after reading this post, I may just drag it out.

  2. Lots of past memories -- this one was used so much in the 80's and then it was forgotten again -- until the republication of the book.

    I used to make it all the time (great dinner party fare) but haven't in a while -- thanks for jogging my memory about this wonderful recipe.

  3. This is a wonderful post. You know, I do remember the Chicken Marbella. I was just thinking about foods from the past yesterday. Wondered what happened to all those fondue recipes ;-)

  4. Wow, great way to bring out the old timers! there are so many old recipes that are great and we keep reinventing the wheel! I have plenty of those I'll try to scatter some around.

    RedKathy do I remember fondue? plenty of that when we were young. Cheap way of entertaining ..those tiny little pieces of meat you had to dig out with a fork...not one of my favorites

  5. Yikes! This is what I am making for a dinner for 6 this Saturday! I must make it 5-6 times a year: it is my daughter's #1 all time favorite. I think I'll do 3 or 4 chickens so we'll have lots of leftovers!!! Yes, the old timers are here.

  6. Its a pleasure to see this recipe. It reminds me of a Mexican dish of similar ingredients - spices and herbs. But the Chicken Marbella holds a big pleasure for me - the enrichment of apricots for beta-carotene and fiber and green olives for Vitamin B6. Meals need not be only tasty, they must measure up to high nutrition so you did a great job.

  7. I made it tonight at the request of my daughter-in-law who we were visiting in San Diego. She and I got the ingredients..did exactly as directed.....and the chicken turned a bluish-green color! Very UN-appealing. Everything was grey or blue. The broth was almost black. Could it have been from the dried prunes we bought in the Asian market that were from China or someplace? They said "dried plums" in english on the pkg. Tbey were very moist and rich-tasting..
    The dish looked awful but tasted great. Crazy. Have never had this happen to me. Yes, all was cooked in non-reactive glass pan.

    1. I would think your guess is right...the Chinese prunes for there is nothing else that could have made this happen. Must have been quite a surprise!

  8. I'm probably the only person on the planet who hasn't cooked this classic of the 1980s.
    There is an adaptation of the Marabella Chicken in Yotam Ottolenghi's blog and while reading through both versions of the recipe I find myself moderately repelled at the thought of consuming olives, apricots and prunes which have marinated overnight alongside raw poultry. It isn't the freakish combo which bothers me---there must be a good reason for its popularity--but the raw meat + fruits thing is a deal breaker. Yet, you have lived to tell the tale….so my fears are probably unfounded.


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