If it isn’t already, this Chicken Marbella with dates recipe needs to be in your life. Besides being delicious, the brilliance of this dish is in the combination of salty and mildly sweet flavours, the ease of preparation, and the fact that it feeds a crowd or can be prepared ahead for an easy weeknight dinner.
Years ago, when I first heard of the Silver Palate’s Chicken Marbella recipe, I remember feeling enchanted by its name — the word Marbella means beautiful sea in Spanish. Marbella is a touristy resort town in Southern Spain with gorgeous beaches on the Mediterranean Sea. A chicken dish that would invoke feelings of eating by the sea must have been alluring not only to me but to the millions that became obsessed with this recipe when it was first published in the early ’80’s.
The Origin of Chicken Marbella
Chicken Marbella is a recipe that became wildly famous when published in the Silver Palate Cookbook in 1981. By famous, I mean what these days is considered viral. The cookbook, written by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, was an instant hit and Chicken Marbella became the “party dish” to serve in the ’80’s.
The Spanish, however, have argued that the use of sugar in the original recipe, as well as the combination of olives and prunes, made it undeserving of its title. This may be true, but the recipe was created by Sheila Lukins, who is Jewish, after travelling through Spain and Marrakesh and falling in love with the flavours of Spanish olives and the dates commonly used in Moroccan tangines. In the American-Jewish community, Chicken Marbella became a staple for Passover Seder. This is largely in part due to its ease of preparation and ability to serve a crowd, and also because combining meat and fruit is a Jewish culinary tradition.
Ottolenghi’s Chicken Marbella
In the past, I made the Silver Palate’s Chicken Marbella multiple times. I did love it, but even after significantly reducing the amount of brown sugar it calls for, I still found it too sweet. Through the years I sort of forgot about Chicken Marbella and other classics, such as this one, became favourites. I may have tried Ina’s version once or twice but it didn’t knock my socks off. When Ottolenghi’s new cookbook Ottolenghi SIMPLE came out, there was an immediate buzz about a few of the recipes in the book. Chicken Marbella with dates was one of them and I couldn’t wait to try it.
Not surprisingly, Ottolenghi’s updated version of the classic Chicken Marbella is brilliant. He eliminates the sugar completely and replaces it with mejdool dates and just a bit of date syrup which gets drizzled over the chicken right before cooking. The dates, once baked, become caramelized and jammy creating an irresistible sweet-briny mix with the olives and capers. Try not to omit or replace the date syrup with anything else, it’s what gives the dish its subtle sweet flavour and deep golden colour to the chicken. You can find really affordable date syrup at any Middle Eastern grocery store. If you live in the Kitchener-Waterloo area you can find it here.
This recipe swaps dried oregano for fresh. If you can’t find fresh oregano (which is sometimes surprisingly hard to find) just use fresh thyme — in this recipe, I prefer it to dry oregano. The long marination of the chicken didn’t change, though you can easily get away with 6 hours if you weren’t able to plan ahead. I have not tried it for less than that but my guess is the chicken would not be as flavourful.
What to Serve with Chicken Marbella
I have yet to think of any side that would not go well with this juicy and tender roasted chicken. Having said that, the side I serve with it varies on the occasion or perhaps time of year. In addition, the somewhat moorish ingredients of this dish inspire sides that are in keeping with those flavours. Below are a few ideas.
- For entertaining: Towards the back of the SIMPLE cookbook you will find a very useful section titled “SIMPLE Meal suggestions from midweek to weekend suppers”. Under “Festive supper” Ottolenghi suggests serving Chicken Marbella with another fabulous recipe from the book, Baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic. It is a wonderful make ahead dish and the only one I make if I am serving Chicken Marbella for company.
- For a family-friendly meal: I love the bold flavours of this chicken paired with orzo, or plain basmati rice with a hearty salad. A quick couscous would also soak up those flavours beautifully.
- For a hearty winter meal; You can’t go wrong with simple roasted potatoes but a version of this moroccan mint roasted vegetable recipe is next on my list!
Chicken Marbella with dates is a dish I love to cook for friends or for my family on the weekends. It is the perfect make-ahead dish and I truly couldn’t love it more and I’m sure you will too! Let me know if you give it a whirl.
Chicken Marbella With Dates Recipe
- 8 chicken legs skin trimmed of excess fat and scored a few times (optional)
- 5 garlic cloves minced or grated
- 3/4 cup fresh oregano leaves torn, plus extra for garnish
- 4 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 3 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1-2 cups pitted green olives I use 2 cups
- 6 Tablespoons capers plus 2 tbsp of their juices
- 5 ounces Medjool dates pitted and quartered
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 tbsp date syrup
- Place the chicken in a large, non-reactive bowl or ziplock bag and add the garlic, oregano, vinegar, oil, green olives, capers, dates, and bay leaves. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper. Mix the ingredients well with the chicken, cover the bowl, and refrigerate for 24 hours and up to 48. Stir the ingredients once or twice through the marination process, if possible.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line the bottom and sides of a large baking tray with parchment paper.
- Spread out the chicken legs on the tray, along with all the marinade ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together the wine and date syrup and pour evenly over the meat. Place in the oven and cook for 50 - 55 minutes, basting two or three times, until the meat is golden brown on top and cooked through.
- Remove from the oven and transfer everything to a large serving platter. Garnish with chopped fresh oregano leaves and serve.