If you had to pick the star-of-show dish from

The Silver Palate

, there is no doubt it would be Chicken Marbella: Thousands of people bought the cookbook for that recipe alone.

It was the first prepared entree sold by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins at the authors' Manhattan gourmet takeout. And its phenomenal popularity there foreshadowed its soon-to-be-sealed status as a new American classic.

"Their Chicken Marbella is a recipe that cut a huge swath through company dinners in the 1980s and never really disappeared," wrote Molly O'Neill, in American Food Writing, An Anthology With Classic Recipes.

She ranks it with 50 recipes that chronicle the country's culinary history, right alongside Thomas Jefferson's ice cream, Julia Child's Coq au Vin, and James Beard's Beef Stroganoff.

The melange of ingredients - chicken pieces, olives, capers, apricots and prunes with cilantro, garlic, oregano and brown sugar cooked in white wine - was so enticingly different from standard dinner-party fare of the day.

Slightly exotic, the dish won over home cooks because it looks beautiful, it tastes and smells heavenly, and, perhaps most important, it's simple to make. Just throw all the ingredients into a Pyrex casserole dish and marinate overnight, then bake for about an hour. It 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, picnics (it's good at room temperature, too), teachers' luncheons and PTA dinners across the land.

Loretta Comfort, an English teacher I know, even adapted it for the Crock-Pot, so, after teaching all day, it could be ready to serve to friends before a night at the opera.

But the best Chicken Marbella story I ever heard came from my colleague, food writer Joyce Gemperlein:

In the spring of 1989, she said, she and her husband-to-be were visiting old friends in Beijing. One of them had been a foreign correspondent for years and they had lived all over Asia, employing native cooks in every country they were posted.

Their host decided to throw a dinner party in their honor, and introduced the white-haired Chinese gentleman who would be preparing the meal.

Joyce was thrilled, anticipating an authentic, multi-course Chinese feast.

When the dinner guests arrived the next evening, the talk was of the activists massing in nearby Tiananmen Square and what their protests might bring.

But then dinner was served, and conversation turned to the main course: Chicken Marbella. Yes, the Silver Palate recipe on page 86.

The dinner guests, mostly Americans, were enthralled and redirected their conversation from the intense political goings-on a few blocks away - to the terrific cookbook making the rounds among Americans living in China.

The Silver Palate had trumped epic unrest in China as a topic of conversation among American journalists. Now that is saying something.

And even though Joyce admits she should be over it, every time she eats Chicken Marbella at her in-laws' Passover meal, she resents the day she was cheated out of a genuine Chinese banquet by Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins.

- Maureen Fitzgerald


Chicken Marbella

Makes about 10 servings

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4 chickens, 2 1/2 pounds each, quartered, or 16 pieces, breasts, thighs, drumsticks

1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed

1/4 cup dried oregano

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup pitted prunes

1 cup of dried apricots (optional)

1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives

1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice

6 bay leaves

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white wine

1/4 cup Italian parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

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1. 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.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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)
 

Note:

For the Crock-Pot version from Loretta Comfort: Put about 10 pieces of chicken in a gallon Ziploc bag along with all other ingredients except brown sugar and parsley. (Cut back vinegar and oil to 1/3 cup.) In the morning, empty contents into the Crock-Pot. Start it on high for 20 minutes, then reduce to low for 8 to 10 hours. Thirty minutes before you want to eat, stir and sprinkle 1/4 cup brown sugar into the pot and stir it around. Let the brown sugar melt into the chicken. The consistency will be more of a stew than the original version, but just as tasty.

Per serving:

615 calories, 32 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 40 grams fat, 132 milligrams cholesterol, 409 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber