Growing up, I always considered my grandfather an incredible cook. He had so many interesting recipes that were always delicious, perfectly balanced, and a change up from the typical meat and potatoes I grew up on (though I also love that). When I was about 10, he made Chicken Marbella a few times, and even as an incredibly picky child I loved it.
To this day I consider Chicken Marbella to be one of the most simple and delicious recipes that requires almost no effort. Although I'm usually in the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" camp, I did make a few adjustments to this classic recipe to cut down on the heavy sweetness.
Dish Origin and Reinvention
Chicken Marbella was first coined by the chefs at the renowned restaurant The Silver Palate. The two women who ran The Silver Palate were Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso. If you're over 40, there's no doubt that you're familiar with Sheila, Julee and the classic dish of chicken marbella, but for younger audiences, this may be a first.
Julee has been quoted directing the inspiration of her dish to her travels in Spain and Morocco. Although the original level of sugar is a more American twist to Spanish and Moroccan cuisine, the base flavours pay homage to the culture.
Ingredients and Substitutions
The Silver Palate and their mission statement are truly after my heart. Their About Me on their website talks about their love for "the taste of homemade - pure and natural". I love to see restaurants, chefs and bloggers have a focus on good quality ingredients.
When making a chicken marbella recipe, you owe it to yourself to use the best quality ingredients you can find. Although not required, it's always nice to buy whole green olives and pit them yourself to ensure the best quality. Pre-pitted olives often aren't amazing.
Another thing worth mentioning but should also go without saying is that this recipe is best with a really, really good olive oil and red wine vinegar. If you serve this with a crusty bread, imagine dipping it in the olive oil and vinegar alone. That's the kind of quality you want on recipes that are simple - both for flavor as well as for sustainable shopping practices.
With that being said, you can use any brands you want and I never want to ingredient or budget shame. Everyone of every social class deserves the best food possible. Work with what you have, and always do better when you can with your shopping habits. Keep in mind that good quality doesn't always mean high price.
I love America's Test Kitchen for ingredient reviews - if you don't have a subscription to them, read general reviews before purchasing.
When I was shooting the recipe I used the store brand of capers and olives. I also only had stuffed manzanilla olives and find they're still delicious. I'm an advocate for using amazing ingredients, but I also believe in not wasting and using what you have at your disposal.
If you already have something at the house that will work, use that. If you don't buy the best you can find.
Other than in situations where you're using what you have, I recommend always following the recipe as is for the first time.
With that being said, I am 100% the kind of person who always scoffs at garlic recommendations in recipes and doubles them. Keep that in mind when considering if you need more garlic. The recipe calls for 1 and ½ heads of garlic - about 15 cloves. It should be sufficient.
If you need to substitute, here are a few options. Don't have...
Brown sugar? You can use ½ cup white sugar minus 1 tablespoon + 1 tablespoon of molasses. Mix them together and use as normal. Not as good, but still delivers the depth of flavour of the brown sugar.
Green olives? You can use manzanilla olives. Not authentic, but honestly similar enough to fly. If you don't like olives I still recommend them for the tartness. I'm not the biggest fan of olives and I just put less of them on my plate.
Prunes? In a pinch you could use dates - though it will slightly change the taste. In an emergency, you could use raisins or currants, but use only ¾ cup and know that the dish will be different. I recommend just buying prunes or holding off until you can get them.
Whole chickens? You can use 4-5 pounds of chicken thighs, legs or breast - all skin on and bone-in. The best way really is to buy 2 whole chickens and cut them yourself. As a bonus, that means you have a chicken back to make stock.
White wine? Even if you don't drink wine, the alcohol is cooked off before consumption. I recommend using it, but you could use equal amounts of alcohol-free wine, apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar. In a pinch (with a hit to flavour) you can use no salt added chicken broth.
Instructions and Tips
When I say that Chicken Marbella is easy, I really mean it. You simply take 2 chickens and cut them into 8 pieces (removing the backs) and allow them to soak up the marinade - which is just all ingredients minus wine and brown sugar.
Don't know how to cut up a whole chicken? I love the way that Melissa Clark from the NYT cooking column cuts up an entire chicken. Here is a link to a Youtube video from Melissa on how to butcher a chicken that I find is the easiest method. I've tried many and still struggle, but have found myself improving loads since following this method.
If you're in a rush or don't want to wait, many sources say that you can marinate chicken pieces (aka not a whole bird) for as little as 30 minutes and still see results because chicken isn't as tough as beef. Food Fire Friends has a whole article dedicated to this topic if you want further reading.
I recommend not marinating for less than 2 hours and no more than 12 hours as it will start to affect the texture of the chicken - it can make it either mushy or even too tough. It will still be safe to eat if it's marinated for up to 2 days if you have an emergency, but ideal time is 8 hours, which is what the original recipe calls for.
Once ready to cook, place all the marinated chicken marbella pieces (and the marinade itself) into an oven-safe dish and pour the wine around the chicken (not on top of it) and then finish by dusting the skin-side-up chicken pieces with the brown sugar to get a nice caramelization.
I had to divide the mixture over two dishes. You don't want the pieces to overlap too much so they can get a nice caramelization on them.
Even though this recipe can take up to 9 hours for the full length marinade, I am tempted to place in in my 30-minute or less recipe category because of how little hands on time it actually takes. Don't let the time stamp freak you out. The only laborious part is cutting up the chicken.
Serving and Side Suggestions
When my grandfather made this, he would also serve it alongside some green veggies and brown sugar butter baby potatoes. I used to love this combination, but had leftover sweet baby potatoes before contracting a flu a few years back and now it's no longer my thing. Beyond personal backstory, I find chicken marbella is already very sweet and deserves a more savory option.
I made this dish for my partner for the first meal after he was away for 6 months and I made it with a Risotto Milanese (aka a saffron risotto) and steamed asparagus. I wholeheartedly prefer this dish with a rich rice side, although it is also good with baked, mashed or roasted potatoes. If you want it to be a quick weeknight meal, I recommend some white Jasmine rice.
Some suggestions I haven't had personally but would recommend regardless are: crusty bread and a side salad, any hearty grains (faro, couscous, quinoa) or even just freshly made pasta. What I love is that chicken marbella sides are basically only limited by your imagination.
Chicken Marbella, Updated
- 2 4lb whole chickens cut into 8 pieces each
- ½ cup olive oil
- ½ cup red wine vinegar
- ¾ cup pitted green olives
- ½ cup capers including the juices
- 1 ½ cup pitted prunes large
- 5 bay leaves
- 12-15 cloves garlic peeled and minced
- ¼ cup dried oregano
- ½ cup light brown sugar
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 tsp salt or to taste
- pepper to taste
- parsley, for garnish optional
- Take the chickens and cut them into 8 pieces, removing the backs. You may cut the chickens into more pieces by cutting the breasts in half or in thirds if you have more people to serve or if everyone wants some the breast meat.
- Take the cut up chicken and place it into a bag with the olive oil, red wine vinegar, green olives, capers, prunes, bay leaves, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Allow it to marinate overnight, 8 hours (read notes).
The Day Of
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Take the chicken and the marinade and place it into an oven safe baking dish. Lay out the chicken in a single layer with the skin up.
- Pour the wine on the sides of the chicken and then top with the brown sugar. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour basting frequently (every 10-15 minutes), until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. Remove it from the oven covered to sit for an additional 15 minutes.
- *IMPORTANT* - the proper temperature for chicken is 165 degrees, so if you aren't going to let it rest covered for the proper time, only remove the chicken when it reaches 165 degrees - though this may overdo the meat.
- *Optional - after resting, you can heat your oven to broil and place the chicken uncovered under the broiler to crisp up the skin. This isn't mandatory, but creates a great crust.
- After resting and optionally broiling, take your chicken and marinade ingredients (olives, prunes, capers) and transfer to plates. Spoon the sauce mixture over the chicken.
- Serve up your chicken marbella with your carb and vegetable(s) of choice - recommended is risotto, crusty bread or fresh pasta as well as steamed asparagus or a fresh salad.