A Taste of Spain at the Seder
Soon after The Silver Palate Cookbook became a smash hit in 1981, one of its iconic dishes, Chicken Marbella, became a staple of New York dinner parties. More than 30 years later, the recipe—with its aromatic blend of prunes, olives, capers, white wine, brown sugar, and tons of oregano and garlic—endures not only as a main course for all sorts of gatherings, but as a go-to entrée for the festive meals at many families’ Passover Seders.
I’ve served it to my own Seder guests for more than a decade and, after some intensive searching on Google and emailing with friends and acquaintances, I discovered that I’m far from alone. My childhood friend Debbie Stadiem Kessler’s mother-in-law from Harrisburg, Pa., first brought the dish to one of Kessler’s Seders in Great Falls, Va., on a Passover some 15 years ago. It became a tradition for Tablet Publisher Jesse Oxfeld’s mother, Ellen Oxfeld, of West Orange, N.J., around 10 years ago when she turned to her copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook in search of “something different” for her Seder. Although Fran Lebowitz once said, in a Passover-themed interview with the New York Times, “It’s entirely possible that in the early ’50s, a very large brisket was delivered to our family and we’re still eating it,” her family also ate Chicken Marbella, according to Lebowitz’s cousin (and my friend) Elaine Koufman, who hosted many of those Seders.
The late Sheila Lukins, who co-authored The Silver Palate Cookbook and three other cookbooks with Julee Rosso, was well aware of Chicken Marbella’s Passover appeal, even if she didn’t originally envision the dish becoming a Seder tradition. “At Passover there’s a lot of cooking to do,” she told Judy Bart Kancigor in a 2008 interview in the Orthodox Union’s Shabbat Shalom. “The Marbella is so delicious and easy to prepare ahead of time.”
Joan Nathan told me recently that while she’s never served Chicken Marbella at a Seder—not even the year that Lukins was a guest at her house—she wasn’t surprised that others do, since “it’s popular for everything—potlucks, weddings.” The recipe has become so popular, in fact, that Nathan included it in her 2005 book The New American Cooking.
In 2011, a Chicago Sun-Times article declared Chicken Marbella “a Jewish holiday and Shabbat dinner favorite.” And it’s no wonder, with its exotic yet somehow nostalgia-inducing combination of sweet, salty, briny, aromatic ingredients, plus the convenience of doing most of the prep work in advance and marinating overnight, then simply baking it the day of the Seder, leaving hosts free to worry about everything but the main course.
Lukins and Rosso met when Rosso, who was in advertising, hired Lukins, who was in catering, to do a press party. An enduring partnership was born. They opened The Silver Palate, their tiny gourmet take-out shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, soon after the blackout in the summer of 1977, offering three entrees: baked tenderloin of beef, baked ham, and Chicken Marbella. “The Chicken Marbella flew off the counter,” according to Rosso, who now calls herself “chief cook and bottle washer” at the Wickwood Inn, a bed-and-much-more-than-breakfast in Saugatuck, Mich., that she and her husband bought 22 years ago.
The dish, Rosso told me in a phone interview, was inspired first of all by the cuisine she and Lukins encountered while traveling in Spain, where meat dishes are often sparked with olives, and in Morocco, where they loved the tagines, rich braises of meat or poultry or fish with vegetables and sometimes dried or fresh fruits, named for the round ceramic dishes with cone-shaped lids in which they’re traditionally slow-baked. Both Lukins and Rosso had also cooked extensively from Paula Wolfert’s now classic Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, which came out in 1973. “The prunes were very much Marrakesh—the tagines,” Rosso said. “And the green olives were Marbella—Spain.”
But there was more. “Sheila was Jewish,” Rosso said, “and I remember when I first met her, that was the first time this old WASP ever ate meat with fruit. She would make me a sweet-and-sour brisket that her mother used to make.”
Lukins’ grandparents came from Russia. In her All Around the World Cookbook she wrote: “I can’t remember which desire came first, my desire to visit their far-away land or my wish to cook like my grandmother. Throughout the years, those memories blended.” So, perhaps, did the culinary influence of her Ashkenazic forebears, who cooked meat with prunes and potatoes and called it tzimmes, blend with that of Mediterranean cooks, including Sephardic Jewish ones, who for centuries had combined meat with fruits.
Claudia Roden, the author of The New Book of Middle Eastern Food and The Book of Jewish Food, explained that the meat-with-fruit tradition originated in the cuisine of ancient Persia and traveled to Baghdad, which became the capital of the Arab empire, and then to North Africa and Spain when Arab armies conquered those parts of the world. “The Jews who lived in Muslim lands adopted the tastes and ways of the homelands they were living in,” Roden told me via email, “with some differences.”
As to whether the Ashkenazic tzimmes and the Sephardic meat-with-fruit traditions are at all related, Roden said that although Sephardic Jews did not often migrate to Eastern Europe, “there could well be a connection, because there was contact between communities and also trade in dried fruit.”
My theory is that it’s not only the lack of last-minute fuss that makes Chicken Marbella a natural for Passover and all other Jewish holidays. The dish resonates in a far deeper, more subliminal sense: Its flavors and aromas throb with Sephardic soul and Ashkenazic soul—this dish covers both bases. Its celebrity fans include Matt Lauer and Ivanka Trump, who cooks it “now and then,” her husband Jared Kushner, publisher of the New York Observer, told me via email. And the 2007 release of The Silver Palate Cookbook 25th Anniversary Edition gave it fresh momentum.
As cooks have introduced variations on Chicken Marbella, these culinary cousins have gained in popularity, too. Sue Millen, who served Chicken Marbella at a 1998 Seder I attended in Hamden, Ct., received the following bulletin from her sister-in-law in 2001: “E-mailed this recipe to my mah-jongg ladies for Passover. Thought maybe you, too, were ready for a change from Chicken Marbella.” The recipe was for Chicken Pandora, from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America. (“I actually like it better than Marbella,” Millen told me recently, adding that she’d just frozen a batch for this year’s Seder.) According to Nathan, Chicken Pandora, which features artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes as opposed to Chicken Marbella’s green olives and prunes, is now the most popular recipe in her book.
Sun-dried tomatoes also figure in Kancigor’s adaptation in Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes From the Rabinowitz Family, along with apricots (not prunes) and the addition of basil.
I think of Chicken Marrakesh, from The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook, as the flip side of Chicken Marbella. It contains black olives instead of green, apricots and figs instead of prunes, thyme instead of oregano, and red wine instead of white—plus pecans, cumin, ginger, and green peppercorns.
Just a few weeks ago, Florence Fabricant (who, incidentally, thought up the name “The Silver Palate,” according to the cookbook’s introduction) weighed in with a recipe, in the Dining section of the New York Times, for Chicken Tagine With Prunes and Olives—taking Marbella right back to Marrakesh.
Even Cook’s Illustrated has got in on the act. Its feature a few years ago “Updating Chicken Marbella” attempted to achieve “crispier skin and more balanced flavor,” via a typically meticulous series of experiments that finally resulted in jettisoning the marinade and coating the chicken with a prune-and-olive-based paste enhanced with anchovy and red pepper flakes.
Finally, there’s Roasted Chicken With Clementines and Arak in the recently published, best-selling Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, whose impact on culinary culture today is reminiscent of Rosso’s and Lukins’ in the pre-foodie era. This highly aromatic new take on marinate-and-bake chicken just might prove to have the Marbella magic and staying power. In addition to the clementines (thinly sliced) and arak (or ouzo, or pernod), the marinade includes fresh orange and lemon juice, grain mustard, sliced fennel, fennel seeds, thyme leaves, and a bit of light-brown sugar.
But however good these more recent descendants of Chicken Marbella may be, at Passover I stick with the original from The Silver Palate Cookbook—but I use half the garlic, at least twice the prunes and olives, and sometimes skinless, boneless chicken parts instead of whole, quartered chickens. You can cut back on the brown sugar, too, and not ruin the dish. In fact, it’s almost impossible to ruin the dish—yet another of its attractions.
Rosso told me that she and Lukins liked serving Chicken Marbella with Nutted Wild Rice (also from The Silver Palate Cookbook)—eliminating the yellow raisins from that recipe, however. Which would work for a Sephardic Seder. Otherwise, it’s great with quinoa. And if you have any leftovers, just put them back in the refrigerator; they’re even better the next day.