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Shabbat Meals: Chicken Marbella Revisited

Growing up in New York City I had no shortage of Jewish friends, and yet it wasn’t until I moved to Israel seven months ago that I went to my first Shabbat dinner. Besides occasionally lighting candles and saying a prayer over a loaf of challah with my in-laws, Friday was just another day in the city that never sleeps.

Frankly, the idea of moving to a place where people actually observe Shabbat got me nervous. The thought that everything stops for 24 hours made this city girl quiver in her boots. That all changed after another young couple invited me and my husband over for Shabbat dinner within a week of us living there. Being new in town we somehow got incredibly lost and were an hour late for dinner.

When we finally stumbled in, apologetic and embarrassed, they were cool as cucumbers, Rather than rushing us to the table, they offered us drinks and snacks. When we finally did sit down to dinner the table was spread with dips and pita and there were appetizers before the main course. I kept wondering what my hosts had prepared that was so impervious to time. The answer, of course, was Chicken Marbella.

An invention of the 1982 “Silver Palate Cookbook”, Chicken Marbella has been a perennial dinner party favorite ever since. For those unfamiliar, the dish is a startlingly good combination of olives, capers, prunes, oregano, garlic, red wine vinegar, brown sugar, and white wine. And, while not intended specifically as a Shabbat recipe, it fits the bill perfectly. The chicken should be marinated overnight, so that all you have to do for dinner time is transfer it to a baking dish and cook in the oven for an hour or so.

For those observing Shabbat, the oven can be turned low after its fully cooked to keep the chicken warm and it can stay there for hours. Basting it once in a while helps maintain its moisture, but it’s nearly impossible to ruin this flavorful chicken dish. Leftovers are great the next day, cold or warmed in the low temp oven, for Shabbat lunch. Couscous, another forgiving dish that is great at any temperature, is the perfect accompaniment.

Ever since that fateful introduction to Shabbat dinner I have been working on my own version of this classic dish. Although it was an American invention, it is Mediterranean at heart and Israeli ingredients shine in it. Recently kumquats have been in beautiful abundance at the market, and so I have begun to add slices to my Chicken Marbella. The beauty of this dish (besides the fact that, as mentioned, it’s hard to mess up) is that it’s incredibly open to revision. Add or remove ingredients, halve the recipe or double it, serve it immediately or hours later – no matter what, it’s always a success.

Seven months later, I’ve grown to look forward to Shabbat. The streets are quiet, most stores are closed, and people are at home spending time with their families. Even more than religious observance, Shabbat is a time for family. Israelis are always concerned that we have somewhere to go on Shabbat, and we often do. We entertain at my home too, now, and make-ahead mezze and Chicken Marbella typically grace the menu. This way, I’m able to spend time with my guests rather than in a tizzy in the kitchen.

Chicken Marbella with Kumquats

Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Shelia Lukins
Yield: 4 to 6 Servings

2 pounds chicken (large chicken breasts, thighs, or whatever parts you prefer)
7 cloves garlic, smashed
2 tablespoons dried oregano
¼ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup pitted, sliced prunes
¼ cup pitted, halved green olives
¼ cup capers, with a bit of their liquid
½ cup sliced kumquats
Zest of 1 lemon
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white wine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or cilantro

1) In a large bowl combine the chicken, garlic, oregano, red wine vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and liquid, kumquats, lemon zest, and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least half an hour, preferably overnight.

2) Preheat the oven to 350F. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in a baking dish. Spoon marinade over evenly. Sprinkle chicken with brown sugar and pour wine around. Bake for 40 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently (depends on the cut of chicken – it took about 40 minutes for the chicken breasts to cook).

3) Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, olives, capers, and kumquats to a serving platter. Spoon a bit of the pan juices over and garnish with the parsley or cilantro. Transfer the pan juices to a sauce boat and pass.


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