Marbella is a resort city on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, so it stands to reason that it’s probably the birthplace of the famous Chicken Marbella recipe, right? Well, oddly no.
What if I told you that Chicken Marbella, despite having all of the markings of a Mediterranean classic, is actually a Jewish-American dish invented on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the late 1970s? It’s true! Sit back and grab yourself a cup of tea, because it’s a rather fascinating story and I’m going to tell you all about it.
The Silver Palate Cookbook’s Famous Chicken Marbella Recipe
Sheila Lukins was a rather remarkable woman. In the 1970s she ran a catering company in Manhattan that catered specifically to bachelors. Delivering dinner to single men without the time and/or inclination to cook? It’s a brilliant idea–especially for the time.
Apparently Julee Rosso, who worked in advertising, knew one of Sheila’s customers and thus had opportunity to sample her food. This lead to Julee hiring Sheila to cater some event, which apparently went very well, and that, in turn, lead to a business proposition. Why not open a business that created high end, fully prepared meals that people could pop in and buy?
And thus the Silver Palate was born. It opened on Columbus Avenue at W 73rd Street in New York city in 1977, conveniently close to Central Park. There’s a great summary of this story in an old Chicago Tribune article from 1985, when Lukins and Rosso were in their heyday.
Lukins and Rosso were a huge success. Their business turned into a tiny empire with a huge staff preparing meals at the Silver Palate, and also a successful line of Silver Palate branded packaged foods. In the course of building this empire, in 1981 to be more precise, Lukins and Rosso published The Silver Palate Cookbook (this is an affiliate link, by the way), which was a smash hit. We’re talking changing American cooking for a generation kind of smash hit here. The Joy of Cooking for the 1980s set. It was really that big of a deal.
One of the recipes in that cookbook was for Chicken Marbella, which was apparently the most popular dish at the Silver Palate. It ended up becoming a Shabbat dinner and Passover Seder staple throughout America (it’s a huge recipe and it can be prepared ahead of time). While that may seem odd, it actually makes a good bit of sense. There’s a strong tradition of pairing fruit and meat in Jewish culinary history, and as a Jew Sheila Lukins was a part of this tradition. I recommend reading Elin Schoen Brockman’s really lovely 2013 article about the popularity of Chicken Marbella at the American Seder table.
Meanwhile, jet-setters like Sean Connery and Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia were hob-nobbing in the elite Spanish resort town of Marbella, surely oblivious to the existence of this fine dish.
But that’s not to say there is no connection. Sheila Lukins did a good bit of her own travelling in the Mediterranean, and claims to have taken her inspiration for Chicken Marbella from the cuisine of southern Spain and the tajines of Morocco.
I give credit for the Chicken Marbella recipe to Sheila Lukins alone because I think she deserves that recognition. Julee Rosso gets top billing on the Silver Palate Cookbook, and in fact on all three of the cookbooks they co-authored. This lends the impression that at best, Rosso and Lukins were co-contributors in the development of these historically important recipes, or at worst, that Sheila Lukins was the “side kick”. This is unfortunate and misleading. While I don’t doubt that Julee Rosso deserves much of the credit for being the ingenious business mastermind behind the Silver Palate empire, it’s pretty clear that Lukins was always the cook. And that makes her a giant in American culinary history in my view. There’s a rather scandalous New York Times piece from 1993 that corroborates this assumption.
According to that article the pair had an un-amicable falling out and parted ways in 1988. Afterwards Julee Rosso published her own low-fat cookbook (this was the low-fat era), Great Good Food, which was a disaster because the recipes were horrible. I own this cookbook, so I can vouch for that critique. They were so bad that Rosso ended up taking a lot of flack from the culinary press. For instance, Mark Bittman from Cook’s Illustrated is quoted as saying, “This is one of the worst cookbooks I’ve reviewed in years.” Ouch.
It gets worse. Sarah Leah Chase, a caterer from Nantucket, MA who moved to New York to work with Lukins and Rosso on their second cookbook, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook (also an affiliate link), describes Julee Rosso as “the Milli Vanilli of the cookbook world.” Double ouch.
“Sheila did recipes,” she said. “[…] Julee was the idea person.”
Assuming this is all true, Sheila Lukins deserves the credit for creating an American classic, although the world probably would never have known if it wasn’t for the motivation of Julee Rosso.
A Healthier Take on the Chicken Marbella Recipe
By 21st century standards the original Silver Palate Cookbook Chicken Marbella recipe is a bit of an unwieldy beast. I mean no disrespect to the culinary brilliance of Sheila Lukins in saying this. I think the original recipe is incontrovertibly delicious. Nevertheless, I’ve streamlined it quite a bit to make it a bit more healthy, a bit more reasonably portioned, and a bit more in keeping with the spirit of a healthy, whole foods Mediterranean Style diet. To wit:
- The original Silver Palate Chicken Marbella recipe involves four whole chickens. That’s a lot of Chicken Marbella! It’s designed to serve around 10 people, which is fitting I suppose if you’re hosting a Passover Seder. But even then those are pretty huge portions. It’s nearly half a chicken per person. With the prunes and olives and olive oil and sugar that’s got to be over 1000 calories per person. My version uses four chicken thighs to provide four 400 calorie servings. That seems a more reasonable portion, especially if you serve it with a side dish or two.
- The original version also has an entire cup of brown sugar. As you all probably know by now, I don’t do sugar. I’ve omitted it completely. I don’t eat it because I’ve got type 2 diabetes. Even if you don’t have diabetes I recommend skipping it, since sugar is really more of a slow acting poison than a food. But hey, I’m not your mom. If you want to sugar it up, have at it. I’ll also add that omitting the sugar changes the character of the dish a good bit, transforming a very sweet, sweet and sour dish into a more savory, briny-vinegary dish reminiscent of, well, traditional Mediterranean fare.
- I’ve modified the cooking method in my Chicken Marbella recipe as well. The Silver Palate recipe calls for marinating the chicken and then baking it in the oven. The idea is that the sugary glaze will caramelize and crisp up the chicken skin by the time the chicken is cooked through. What’s more likely, however, is that the skin will steam in moisture and come out pale, soft, and flabby in a way that I don’t find particularly appetizing. So I begin by skillet frying the chicken to brown and crisp up the skin.
- My version has much less saturated fat and cholesterol than the original version. That’s because I render most of the chicken fat while pan frying, then drain it off and replace it with extra virgin olive oil. Unless your bubbe waxes poetic about the virtues of schmalz, I recommend you do the same. It’s much healthier.
- I used thyme instead of oregano. I like it better.
- Mine also has almonds, because crunch is good.
- Finally, I used red wine instead of white in my recipe. This was largely an aesthetic consideration. My first attempt at this recipe was a fail due to being…um…how to put it? Let’s say it was “unphotogenic”. It tasted wonderful, but the sauce ended up being this nauseating pale yellow-brown, which just didn’t look all that appetizing. I’ve included the best of those photos below so you can see for yourself. There are far worse photos that I’d really rather not share. You’ll just have to trust me. By using red wine instead I got a much more appealing reddish-brown sauce. Hey, we eat with our eyes first, right?
- 4 Chicken Thighs (with skin and bone)
- ¼ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Large Onion, diced
- 5 Cloves Garlic, minced
- ½ Cup Pitted Prunes
- ¼ Cup Castelvetrano Olives, flesh cut from pits
- ¼ Cup Cerignola Olives, flesh cut from the pits
- ¼ Cup Capers
- ¼ Cup Coarsely Chopped Almonds
- ¼ Cup Red Wine Vinegar
- ¾ Cup Dry Red Wine
- Preheat oven to 375°(190°).
- Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Salt and pepper the chicken and place skin side down and cook until skin is golden brown.
- Drain off all but one tablespoon of fat (it’s mostly chicken fat). Turn the chicken. Add the remaining olive oil and the onion and garlic. Saute until onion is soft and translucent, about 10 - 12 minutes.
- Add the prunes, olives, capers, and almonds and cook a few minutes more.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine, and add the vinegar. Cover the skillet and place in the oven until chicken is done, about 30 minutes.