"The “prunes were very much Marrakech tagines; the green olives were Marbella, Spain.” That sounds about right. But, the sugar is pure American! Maybe that’s why it’s such a popular dish"
Janet Mendel/My Kitchen in Spain
This is actually a lucky dip post. Oh the places the lucky dip will take you.
On the left a dish from Ottolenghi's book Simple and a dish called Chicken Marbella. Which it turns out is a somewhat fraudulent dish on several different levels. However, I'm going to try it soon because it looks utterly delicious and like the book's title looks amazingly simple. But here's the thing, it's not really Chicken Marbella - it's an adaptation; and Chicken Marbella and it's creators are not what they seem either.
Marbella is a coastal town in southern Spain. 'Mar' 'bella' - beautiful sea - meaning the Mediterranean of course. It's not a fish dish though, so forget the sea connection. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the place Marbella. Well only very remotely.
In New York city there was a lady called Sheila Lukins who had a small business cooking dinners for bachelors. Another lady called Julee Rosso knew one of these bachelor, tasted the food and got in touch with the idea of broadening the scope of what Sheila Lukins did by opening a shopfront catering business. It was very successful because Sheila Lukins was a very good cook. And top of the list of her customers' favourites was Chicken Marbella. The story is that it was inspired by a visit to Morocco and Spain that the pair made - prunes from Morocco - and olives from Spain. Also a bit specious because surely the two are available in both countries. Whatever the reason it was a hit. An American classic.
At this point I would like to acknowledge an article on the Slow Burning Passion website which had the most complete telling of the story of the origins of the dish. In summary it seems the pair published what is now a classic American cookbook - The Silver Palate Cookbook and note that Julee Rosso gets top billing. It seems, however, that she really wasn't a great cook - she was the ideas and marketing half, but when they fell out years later and she published her own books they were flops - indeed critically reviled. The general opinion seems to be that Sheila Lukins was the cook. Which I guess still doesn't mean that Julee Rosso couldn't have given her the ideas. Anyway - fraud in the name, and fraud in who actually thought of it.
As I said, the dish became a classic, not just of American food but also of American Jewish food for it is now almost a traditional dish for Shabbat dinner and Passover Seder - whatever they exactly are. And the fact that the original recipe was for four whole chickens plays into this. The New York Times version of Chicken Marbella shown here is probably fairly close to the original.
Fundamentally it's a braised dish of chicken with prunes and olives, wine and heaps of sugar - a whole cup for those four chickens. So it's sweetish. We are talking about a dish created back in the 1970s when they might have not been quite as conscious about the evils of sugar? No I don't think so. Let's just say it's America.
You will find lots of different versions of the recipe online, with varying degrees of adaptation. SBS and Adam Liaw have a go and so does Woolworths - it's a user friendly dish, because fundamentally you just throw everything in together, marinate it and cook it. Adam Liaw drastically decreased the amount of sugar, Woolworths added mushrooms and so it goes. Maybe the best idea would be to make the original and then play around with it. The Australians - and Ottolenghi too - seem to prefer the tray bake approach which gives you more brown chicken and less sauce - whereas the original, and most of the American versions go the tagine style route.
Ottolenghi played around a bit more. He acknowledges the fact that it is inspired by the original Sheila Lukins dish, but he varies it quite a bit by using dates instead of prunes and date molasses instead of sugar. The dates would be sweet too but there is vinegar and wine in there to take the edge off the sweetness. It does beg the question though as to whether this should be given a different name. In a way it is fraudulent to call it Chicken Marbella, but then in another way I guess it shows an endearing lack of ego. I mean he could so easily have given it another name. And to be fair to all those other recipes that I saw, just about all of them paid homage to the original whilst adapting to a more modern approach - mostly by using less sugar.
Now I love dates so to before I researched the origin story I actually looked around to see if the combination of chicken and dates is a common one. And, of course it is, because, as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says:
"Dates, Medjool or not, are fantastic in tagines of lamb or chicken, chopped into couscous or sliced into salads, particularly those containing some salty cheese and perhaps a bit of citrus."
Lots of these cooks added various spices to make the dishes even more North African/Middle Eastern. Couscous featured of course, as did lemons and occasionally other grains such as freekeh and bulgur. Olives were a common addition and sometimes dried apricots as well. So here is a pretty tempting collection to choose from next time Medjool dates are on a special. In no particular order: Chicken with dates and couscous/Taste; Chicken, date and apricot tagine/Not Quite Nigella which I have to say looks particularly tempting; Chicken and date tajine/ Valli Little; Chicken with dates and lemon - this one is from Alison Roman found on the website This is How I Cook but I have to say that Alison Roman's recipe was obviously a very popular one as there were many versions of it.
But there were more: Spiced chicken with dates from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; Chicken with dates, saffron and freekeh another kind of dish but chicken and dates, from Yotam Ottolenghi; Poulet aux dates from Claudia Roden, but alas, no picture; Moroccan spiced chicken with dates and olives from Diana Henry/Nigella.com and Clay pot chicken with dates, sucuk and bulgur from Greg and Lucy Malouf on the Epicurious website.
Annoyingly I was on the last lines of the post when the power went off. We had really bad winds yesterday, and eventually of course, one of them must have fallen on a line near here. And everywhere else as well because it has only just come back on. Twenty four hours later. Every now and then you need a shock like that to make you realise that once upon a time you had no computers, no internet, no television even - yes it was a few years before we got one. And our ovens and cooktops were all gas too. No microwaves - no heating! It's been difficult. The candles were removed but in the end after reading a book by torchlight for a while it was early to bed!