I am sure that somewhere in time there existed a talented hostess reclining in the perfectly coiffed confines of her salon dispensing advice to admiring guests eager to learn grace, poise and the fine art of entertaining. How could she have guessed that this delicate moment in time, a late afternoon of easy conversation would be the birth place of domicile recommendations that would be passed and later shared by her attentive visitors and that in spite of the years and distance which would elapse, her sagacious words would still carry weight and purpose in the minds of future aspiring hosts yet to know a fry pan?
Through some blend of providence and destiny her instructions found me, compelling me to seek out simple recipes to master and rely upon as steady friend in an opening world of dinner parties and glad festivities. Armed initially with only a few Gourmet recipes illegibly scribbled into a notebook, every dinner out was open game for investigation and if need be, appropriation. I was in my early twenties, learning to cook and desirous of authoring my own brand of hospitality for which I had little clue and even less guidance. My ideas for entertaining were disjointed and outdated, the sophisticated independence of Mary Tyler Moore fused with the exotic glam of Charo meets Joy of Cooking with a pinch of Bon Appetit. Dimly I envisioned myself wearing flowing kaftan with turban while holding a silver platter checkered with rumaki. Fortunately for every future guest to be, fate intervened to whisk me away from dreaded gaucherie whilst nudging me towards something both accessible and real.
The evening was a tense one for me, an invitation to dine with my boyfriend’s parents, loquacious intelligent people interested in everything. I suffered tremendously from a fear of being dimwitted and losing the ability to eat and speak at the same time. The warm complex smell of chicken and garlic basting in wine headed me off, wrapping me immediately in a blanket of acceptance and cordiality. I recall such genuineness, a desire to welcome and create a memorable meal in the form of a rustic dish with a glamorous name. I was disarmed. Plump chicken, unctuous wine soaked prunes, herbs at every turn with a wink of caper- I may have looked every part the sensible dinner guest on the exterior, but inside not only was I luxuriating in sensual pleasure but I learned that a good host can create an atmosphere where the perceived differences between people dissolve. Gone were my petty insecurities, feasting on fowl moved the focus from head to heart and allowed a space for friendship to unfold.
Quickly I ascertained that Chicken Marbella had the hallmark of a keeper recipe. The flavors pique the taste buds in lively debate, sweet, bracing, pungent, and herbaceous. The dish escapes easy definition. It is sophisticated enough to be eaten by candlelight in gown or tux, but would be just at home plucked out of a picnic basket. Bold interesting flavors let the guest know this will be no prosaic affair yet its polish belies the ease in preparation. Low effort with high impact, I rely upon this poultry dish time and time again especially when I find myself overly concerned about crafting the perfect meal. Ultimately the job of the consummate host is to receive-- to enfold another into the family. The food and accompanying accoutrements are holy offering signifying that embrace. In the end it is less about the fuss of food, self conscious repasts which require too much sweat and toil, and more directly about the people who eat.
Chicken Marbella serves 6 adapted from the Silver Palate Cookbook
When I first had this dish over 15 years ago, it was one of the most exotic things I had ever tasted. I had the recipe for a short time before it was recklessly tossed into my memory bank to be interpreted anew each subsequent time. I can say that ever iteration has been fabulous. Very recently I found the recipe again only to realize that I had been calling it the wrong name (Chicken Mirabelle) all of these years. It seems that I was also taking certain liberties with the directions. If you want to have a go at directions closer to the original, look here.
3 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts
8 garlic cloves finely chopped
¼ C Balsamic Wine
¼ C olive oil
1 C pitted prunes
½ C pitted green olives
¼ C capers
3 bay leaves
¼ C packed brown sugar
½ C white wine
2 Tbsp. dried oregano
Pinch red pepper flakes
Few grates orange zest
Salt and pepper
Finely chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish
Directions: Throw everything into a bag to marinate overnight. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place chicken and all other marinated bits into an ample Dutch oven and cover. Bake for about 45 minutes checking until chicken is done. Garnish with fresh chopped herbs. While this dish improves with age, the aroma out of the oven is terrific and is highly recommended for the benefit of dinner guests.