Before we had the internet for recipes, my family — all families — had cookbooks. There were shelves full of them, and they were stained with fat splatters of Worcestershire sauce and other remnants of being thumbed through while cooking. Their spines ached, and their pages were stuffed with ad hoc bookmarks and indecipherable notes.
In my mother’s kitchen, some volumes got more love than others. Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso’s The Silver Palate was a family favorite. It came out in 1982, five years before I was born, and my mom’s takes on its recipes for spinach-feta phyllo triangles, wild mushroom soup, cheese straws, and banana bread were my childhood staples. Still, when confronted with bananas fast over-ripening, my mom pulls out The Silver Palate. I do the same. The resulting bread is hearty, banana-y, and dense with crunchy walnuts.
It’s almost Rosh Hashanah, which means it’s time to break out The Silver Palate again. Its Chicken Marbella is the star of my family’s Rosh Hashanah dinner, year after year. My mom is a wonderful cook, and for her, cookbooks offer more suggestions than rules. She consults a recipe, then adds, subtracts, and tweaks to make it her own. But when it comes to Chicken Marbella, my mom is a purist. “It’s pretty much perfect,” she says. “The olives, the capers, the prunes. A ton of garlic. A ton of oregano. No need to mess with that.”
I was born on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 31 years ago. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had a sweet spot for the Jewish New Year.
But that’s just the beginning. September is a time of fresh starts. New school years that demand virgin notebooks and shiny new pens, not yet gnawed during bleary eyed nights trying to make deadlines. Trees that illuminate themselves into vivid oranges and reds. Soft scarves put back into rotation. The resonating wail of the shofar piercing the air.
And Chicken Marbella. The dish is probably The Silver Palate’s most famous. The New York Times called it a classic, and so has nearly everyone else. The thing is, it’s sort of a strange recipe. Combining prunes, capers (“with a bit of juice”), green olives, and a whole head (!!) of garlic isn’t exactly an obvious move. There’s a lot going on.
Yet, it’s a genius concoction. The briny capers and olives give an edge to the sweetness imparted by the prunes and brown sugar. The marinade infuses incredible depth into the chicken, which comes out unfailingly tender, juicy, and full of flavor. The prunes plump up in the chicken juices as the dish cooks, and I always make sure to pluck out a few extra onto my plate. The resulting sauce is good enough to drink.
My mom is weirdly opposed to sweet mains and sides, even on Rosh Hashanah when they’re tradition. (As for me, I have a serious sweet tooth.) But she makes an exception for this classic, and I can see why. It’s the perfect holiday dish, easy to make ahead of time — it just gets better the longer it marinates in the fridge. It’s great served hot, and equally delicious at room temperature. No need to spend time in the kitchen when guests begin to arrive. And the leftovers are stellar, too.
Plus, it’s a really good friend to round challah. But then the family controversy — raisins or no raisins — gets evoked. My mom buys both to make everyone happy, the way the Chicken Marbella does. With chunks of challah, we all scoop up the last of the sauce on our plates. There’s no better way to ring in a new year.