Sunday, January 20, 2008

Marbella de jour

I've told you about my first cookbook, from the crafty folks at Klutz Press. But the cookbook that got me cooking proper dinners --- as opposed to baking endless chocolate chips cookies and rolling hot dogs in ready-made puff pastry --- was The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Russo and Sheila Lukins. Of course, I'm not alone here. It's right up there in the pantheon of American cookbooks, with over 1 million in print.

My family actually wore out our paperback copy. For about 5 years, it was strapped together with a rubber band, random chunks of pages still clinging together with a thin strip of binding, the sections in disarray, the index rendered almost useless. We have a new copy now --- hard-back.

This was the cookbook I was working with when I had my cooking breakthrough at the age of 13. I was fulfilling my familial duty to put dinner on the table on Friday nights. I spent a good hour pouring over The New Basics, as was my wont (I have trouble with decisions), and finally settled on something called a soufflé. In particular, a Gruyere and proscuitto soufflé. I can say with near-certainty that I'd never eaten one before, but they sounded pretty, and I was a big fan of proscuitto. Soufflé it would be.

I'd never folded in egg whites before. I'd heard about this technique, because I was a great fan of Disney's Sleeping Beauty as a child and in one scene --- one that ranks among the all-time classics of cooking in cinema --- the three fairy godmothers must bake a cake, sew a dress, and clean their cottage in the glen without the help of magic. Fauna, the particularly dippy fairy, reads from a dusty old cookbook, "two eggs --- fold in gently." She gives a doubtful little shrug and proceeds to tuck the batter over the eggs, shells and all, like putting two babies to sleep. I knew that was wrong --- this was Fauna we were dealing with --- but I couldn't tell you what she should have done to make it right.

Thank goodness I had Julee & Sheila. They actually explained this business of folding and that gave me the confidence to give it a shot. It is as Molly O'Neill notes in American Food Writing: "
If Julia Child was a teacher, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins ... were more like coaches."

soufflé was a complete success. I didn't doubt that it would be; I didn't know enough to know they are supposed to be intimidating and notoriously temperamental. But the kudos I got when I presented it at the table! I thought, I could get used to this. My soufflés became a Friday night staple and a minor piece of family lore.

I owe much to Julee & Sheila. I don't think they've ever failed me. Their recipes always turn out as they say they will, and they always have another good idea up their sleeves. They make you excited to cook, and they nudge you gently to what is local, seasonal, and help you make it special.

Last week I made their Chicken Marbella, the first main-course dish that they offered at The Silver Palate, their Upper West Side better-than-take-out take-out joint (since closed). It's chicken marinated in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, oregano, red wine vinegar, prunes, Spanish green onions, capers, and bay leaves, and cooked with brown sugar and white wine. The recipe was published in The Silver Palate Cookbook, which turned 25 last year. "A spectacular party dish," according to its inventors, so crowd-ready that the recipe serves 10 to 12. Molly O'Neill wrote that the recipe "cut a huge swath through company dinner in the 1980s."

A dinner party dish from a New York institution? I knew just the occasion to make it. I left my job as a development assistant at Jeanne Sigler and Associates last month. Last week, the office team together for a casual not-really-farewell supper at Jeanne's apartment. Jeanne, her husband Jim Fratto, and her longtime associate Carolyn Huggins have been doing good works all over Manhattan for decades. They also love to eat well.

When I announced my plan to make Chicken Marbella, Jim and the other development assistant, Sarah (an NYU student & total foodie), got Spanish fever. Jim supplied two delicious Spanish cheeses, figs, spicy chorizo, and saffron rice. He regaled us with tales of a year spent in northern Spain, where his precocious little boy would sniff cheeses at the cheese shop and demand, "¡No! ¡Mas viejo!" Sarah made a fantastic salad dotted with balsamic-candied walnuts and Manchego. The night before, she was making flan in precious individual ramekins when her oven gave out. Instead, she brought a spectacular chocolate and marzipan "Busy Bee Cake" from Black Hound, an East Village bakery.

Chicken Marbella, Sheila & Julee wrote, is a great make-ahead dish because it improves with a little time. And, yes, there was some time involved. It was a three-day effort: I prepared the marinade on Tuesday, baked the chicken on Wednesday, and lugged it in a large disposable pan to my other job on Thursday morning, planted it in the communal fridge, and lugged it a few stops uptown that evening. (I'm as ambitious and determined in the subway as I am in the kitchen). And then all the way over to the far-far east side (we're talking Pepsi Cola views) in the sleet & wind.

But once I got inside, once we finally got it reheated, once we sat down to supper with a lovely glass of Spanish red and candles twinkling around us: delicioso.

You can find the recipe for Chicken Marbella here. I made 6 chicken breasts (bone-in, skin-on) and 2 chicken legs, enough to serve 8. I reduced the other ingredients by about 1/4. (I.e., the recipe calls for 1 cup of prunes, I tossed in about 3/4.) And I was out of oregano, so I substituted an Italian seasoning blend of rosemary, oregano, parsley and basil.

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