- Zoya B.
"Boomer" Chicken with Olives and Fruit (Chicken Marbella)
I write a lot about the Jewish heritage foods that I grew up eating, the recipes that my mother had to follow Bobe around to collect, the experiments in global Jewish foods that my father researched and recreated to bring the Jewish diaspora into our kitchen. But neither of my parents are immigrants, and the food we ate—especially on weeknights—was much more representative of the healthy-ish yuppie American foods that my parents learned and ate as they came into adulthood in the 1970s. My mother was vegetarian for many years and lived in co-ops in the Boston area. My dad worked in restaurants on the Cape in summers between college. For every kugel was a Moosewood Cookbook brown rice and vegetable casserole, for every bowl of borsch a chickpea soup from a Hare-Krishna-approved vegetarian cookbook. The Joy of Cooking and Greene on Greens sat beside my mother's collection of family recipe cards, Claudia Roden's Middle Eastern cookbooks...you get the idea. Boomer food.
A lot of these recipes may seem as dated to millennials as jello molds probably were to our parents, but the 1970s-80s really signaled a major shift in how Americans eat. Global trade agreements (as exploitative as they are/can be) and new preservation and transportation technologies meant that you could get non-local foods and fresh produce/vegetables all year round, even in colder climates. Environmentalism and the popularity of Eastern religions in the U.S. led to more vegetarian eating and heirloom crops. Boomer cuisine was more health conscious than previous American diets based on Crisco, canned vegetables, lots of meat and dairy. The 1970s also ushered in a new era of the popularity of regional ethnic cuisines, mostly due to the United States' imperial interests in Asia and the Middle East and the many refugees created by war and revolution and the post-WWII repeal of explicitly exclusionary immigration legislation (Asian Exclusion Act, Chinese Exclusion Act, Immigration Act of 1924). While previously you may have only had access to say, a Kosher deli or Indian spice market or Chinese farmer's market or Russian Market or Halal butcher if you lived in a major urban center, ethnic enclaves and refugee resettlement programs expanded this reach. Likewise, major grocery stores started to carry things like soy sauce, fresh pasta, pickled herring, tortillas, miso, tofu, etc.
My parents were very much influenced by boomer/yuppie food trends. We ate lots of whole grains and tempeh and kale. My parents cooked their generations' versions of Gado Gado and Aloo Gobi, and we ate out at all kinds of restaurants. I mostly remember eating vegetarian foods and fish on most weeknights in preparations that I did not think of as "Jewish food," and Jewish meat dishes on Fridays and holidays. One of the frequent rotations for our Shabbas meals was Chicken Marbella, a sweet and sour baked chicken with prunes and olives that I always thought it was some kind of Sephardic, maybe Italian or Spanish, Jewish chicken dish. The last time I made it, I decided to do some research, and to my surprise, Chicken Marbella was actually invented by Jewish chef and entrepreneur Sheila Lukins on the Upper East Side of New York City. It was the classic dish of The Silver Palate Cookbook, published in 1982. The New York Times described it as "Boomer cuisine." Suddenly, it made sense. I had a word for so much of the non-Jewish food my parents cooked. Chicken Marbella encapsulates a lot of the food that shaped my tastes and upbringing; both global and local, Jewish-ish, urban, creative, tasty, and pretty easy to make.
This is my version, which includes the classic combination of olives and prunes. It draws sweetness from honey, balsamic vinegar, and additional fruit (rather than the brown sugar of the original recipe) and plays on more of the Moroccan influences by incorporating preserved lemon.
This recipe makes 4 servings. The better quality the olives and capers are, the tastier the chicken will be. You could use chicken legs or leg quarters instead of thighs, but I would not use skinless meat or white meat as it will dry out.
8 chicken thighs (or 4 chicken leg quarters)
1/2 pint castelvetrano olives in water, with their juices
1/2 head of garlic, cloves peeled and crushed under a knife
1 cup dried prunes
6 fresh figs cut in half (or 6 dried black figs, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes)
1 preserved lemon, chopped
5-6 giant capers, or 2 tbsp small capers
6 sprigs of fresh oregano
2-3 fresh or two dried bay leaves
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup white wine
2 tsp kosher salt
Mix all of the ingredients together besides the salt and chicken.
Trim the chicken thighs or legs of extra fat. Run your fingers under the chicken skin to loosen it from the thigh so that the marinade soaks in.
Toss the chicken thighs with the salt in a large bowl. Pour in the marinade, cover, and refrigerate for 6 hours to overnight.
Remove chicken from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature (about 30 minutes).
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Lay out chicken thighs on a large sheet pan, skin side up. Dump the rest of the marinade into the pan once the thighs are arranged.
Cook for 50 minutes (1 hour for thigh quarters).
The skin should be caramelized but not burnt. Serve with rice, challah, millet, couscous, or other grain of your choice.