My late mother, though a great baker, was not a very good cook but she determined to be better. Over the years, she nurtured a deep love for cookbooks, many she consumed with an almost religious vigour. In turn, she expanded not just her understanding and appreciation of food but ours as well.
Growing up, a new cookbook would appear in our kitchen almost weekly. Sometimes it was a simple Australian Woman’s Weekly and the likes, each promising easy Asian recipes in minutes (they always seemed to promise fuss free ‘ready-in-minutes’ cooking but the reality was mostly anything but). Occasionally a bigger and better tomes would appear, some by renowned chefs and the one crucial reference that got me interested in cooking was Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. It turned up one day on our kitchen countertop when I was a teenager and I used it to teach myself to cook.
I had originally intended to make my way to Los Angeles to study record production and engineering as there were no such courses available where I lived. But LA was a country far away from where I was (we were residing at South Africa at that time), away from my parents. My mother with all her innate wisdom, informed me that she and my dad , would consider my plea to study in another continent only if I was able to cook well enough to not starve in a country all alone by my lonesome self. To this day I am unsure what type of wilderness my mother believed LA to be; whether or not she thought I’d need to hike the Oregon trail and beyond to get there. Perhaps that’s why I needed to learn the fundamentals of cooking.
Looking back, I chuckle and recognise that it was a clever ploy by my mother to take three nights off a week during my final two years of high school. It gave her a much deserved break from the endless cooking for a family of four, all the while teaching me a valuable life skill. I never made it to LA to study but instead ended up in the kitchens and the rest as they say is history.
I still hold onto a limited amount of old recipes books but sadly most of my mother’s collection passed into others hands after she passed away. I was traveling around the world at the time, and dragging cases of cookbooks with me was never a realistic option.
One of the exception is Hering’s Dictionary of Classic and Modern Cookery. This book provides a brief two-sentence description of practically every classical recipe developed over the last 100 years or so. There are no recipes, no method and absolutely; no nonsense; it just names key ingredients. A book that is useful when traveling, it holds almost every known classical ‘recipe’ ever in one book, as long as you have the basic knowledge to piece together what you need to be searching for. Otherwise its quite like trying to do a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but with no pictures for reference and with the lights have been turned off.
Another book my mum owned and one that traveled with me for some time but was later lost, (like my many good Terry Pratchett books), was The Silver Palate Cookbook. Revolutionary for its time, the book showed us dishes that gourmands in the 1980s were eating in fancy French restaurants, which was aspirational because spaghetti bolognese and Spanish rice was my mum’s main-stay dishes at home. To this day I’ve not figured out what made Spanish rice. Pre-Silver Palate Cookbook, it was pasta, rice or Spanish simple chicken and beef roasts (that came with roast potatoes on a Sunday).
That cookbook, along with Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, opened up whole new culinary worlds to us – we started enjoying très délicieux French onion soup, chicken coq au vin , curried butternut squash soup and chicken marbella.
With that in mind, giving a respectful nod to the classics that I learned to cook in my youth and to remember my mum and her love for cooking this Mother’s Day. I decided to cook a classic dish from those books, one that we have cooked many times. I hope you enjoy the recipe and discover that something old can also be new (and super delicious). I hope you would have much excitement in Chicken Marbella as I did as a child.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine or apple vinegar
200gm prunes ,pitted
150gm green olives ,pitted
3 bay leaves
1 head of garlic minced
1 handful chopped oregano & thyme leaf (1/4 cup if using dried)
2 Tbls pomegranate molasses (if not available, date molasses is a great substitute)
1 large chicken, ,quartered
1/2 cup chopped coriander
Combine the olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers, bay leaves, garlic, oregano and thyme leaf in a large bowl, stir in the pomegranate molasses and add the chicken.
Place in a ziplock bag and marinate overnight in the fridge.
Stasher bags are our preferred resuable bag of choice as they are environmentally friendly, food safe and heat-proof, so you can cook directly in the bags. It is sous vide, oven and microwave safe.
The next day, preheat the oven to 180°C. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in a baking pan, pouring the remaining marinade into the pan also. The original recipe called for a 1/4 glass of white wine to be added at this point (I don’t see the point since you already have acidity from the vinegar and sweetness from the dates, but you’re welcome to try).
Bake the chicken for 50mins, remembering to baste two or three times with the pan juices during the cooking time.
Transfer the chicken pieces to a warm serving platter ,spoon off any excess oil from the baking tray and spoon the balance sauce with the prunes, olives and capers.
Wash and roughly chop some coriander or flat leaf parsley and sprinkle over the dish.
And there you go – a classic, easy to prepare one-pan tasty meal perfect for a memorable Mother’s Day (or any day really). It is (to me), a truly comforting chicken dish, perfect for our current times.