Many moons ago we rented a villa in Gaucín, a whitewashed mountain village in Andalucia. The ultimate in luxury it came with a cook, and although I used to speak Spanish pretty fluently I was very rusty and had been nervously trying to polish it back to better than tongue-tied.
But arriving at Malaga airport (just down the road from Marbella) such desultory attempts to remember obscure cooking terms turned to frantic brain searches for apologies and excuses for lateness as it became clear that our luggage had not been on the same flight as ours.
Three hours later, translated mea culpas at the ready, we arrived. Instead of the expected olive-skinned local, a welcoming, rose-complexioned individual rushed out exclaiming in fluent English, “what a dreadful trip you’ve had, dinner is all ready, I always make Chicken Marbella for guests on their first night, delays are a way of life here.”
It tasted heavenly, and not just because we were all ravenous. Now this dish has become my reliable standby recipe for Friday evening guests travelling from London in uncertain traffic – the longer it’s kept warm, the more the flavours develop – and it has proved a success time and time again.
Maisie (of the English rose-complexion) was kind enough to give me the recipe and naturally enough, due to the name, I thought it was Spanish. But later I found the recipe included in the American section of Mimi Sheraton’s 1000 Foods To Eat Before You Die. She tells us that:
“The epitome of 1980s cooking and entertaining, the dish was devised by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, partners in the New York catering shop The Silver Palate. Opened on the Upper West Side in 1977, the store sold a then quirky combination of multi-ethnic, vaguely sophisticated dishes that lent themselves to dinners for busy family weeknights but were also good enough for company”.
That seemed to be that – not quite as romantic as I had thought. But then one cosy afternoon I was curled up in front of a fire reading Elizabeth Luard’s Still Life: Klipfisk, Cloudberries and Life After Kids. She describes a meal enjoyed during a trip to Greece.
“The little taverna was not much from the outside, but inside it was packed. The scent of spices combined with the fragrance of garlic and chicken, overlaid with the thick sweet aroma of Turkish tobacco…..A plate of chips, crisp and hot and sprinkled with salty grated cheese was soon followed by a n earthenware dish of chicken stew spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg…This particular stew, the proprietor confirmed, was the speciality of the house. Both recipe and main ingredients, prunes and chicken, came from his wife’s home village on the Halkidiki peninsula. They were Asia Minor Greeks, he explained gravely.”
The recipe, clearly generations older than the Silver Palate invention, is essentially the same in the fundamentals. The main differences are that this earlier, Asia Minor Greek version: includes the spices (cinnamon and nutmeg); uses mint instead of parsley; uses red wine instead of white; and, unexpectedly, does not include green olives.
My version is a sort of hybrid. I add the spices and I substitute the mint. I compromise on the wine and use rosé vermouth instead. I think the olives are essential, and I use the best I can find, whether green or black.This robust and versatile dish goes well with anything that will soak up the delicious juices – baked potatoes, rice, crusty bread….but I think it goes particularly well with couscous mixed with red onions and peppers.
Ottolenghi (in Simple) substitutes the prunes for Medjool dates; and instead of soft brown sugar he uses date molasses or treacle.
Finally, there is another great advantage to this dish. You can make the sauce (including the prunes/olives/capers/herbs etc – you can even include the vermouth) ahead of time and take it with you if you are catering elsewhere. Then all you have to do is buy the chicken quarters, marinate for as long as you can (maximum 24 hours) and cook.
Goes well with baked potatoes in their jackets, or with basmati rice; and a green salad.
Recipe for chicken-more-Greek-than-Marbella
Serves 12– NB marinate overnight if you can
• 12 chicken quarters
• 1 head of garlic, crushed
• ¼ cup/30g dried oregano
• ½ cup/120ml red wine vinegar
• up to ½ cup/120ml olive oil
• 1 cup/180g pitted prunes
• ½ cup/100g pitted olives
• ½ cup/100g capers NB – NOT the type in vinegar or brine, fresh are by far best, if not, get the salted type and soak in milk for half an hour or so, then rinse thoroughly and pat dry
• 6 bay leaves
• 1 cup/170g soft brown sugar
• 1¼ cups/300ml (or maybe more if there is a lot of waiting time) rosato vermouth
• generous handful (25g pack) chopped mint
• a cinnamon stick
• some grinds of nutmeg
• salt and pepper
1. Marinate (overnight if possible) the chicken in all the other ingredients EXCEPT the vermouth.
2. Then, pour in the vermouth and cook at 210ºC (roasting oven for Aga or Rayburn owners) for about an hour…..or longer.