Photo by jkdjulia/FlickrCC
To try the recipes mentioned in this post, click here for Chicken-Marbella-inspired lamb tagine and here for a tzatziki sauce to accompany it.
I grew up a few blocks from the Silver Palate food shop, the store—opened in 1977 by Sheila Lukins, a caterer, and Julee Rosso, a marketing exec—that spawned four influential cookbooks and changed the way New Yorkers viewed food in the 1980s. I can estimate that the store closed when I was no older than seven because my memories of the place begin in-stroller and end sub-counter-height. I remember the trim red awning, the rush of air-conditioned air scented with basil and raspberries when you entered from the sticky summer heat, shelves filled with row upon row of jams and jellies, the signature red-and-white checked packaging, the holiday-specific cookies. The store is as much a part of my early childhood as Gus (the neurotic Central Park Zoo polar bear) and OshKosh B'Gosh.
My mother gave me two of her Silver Palate cookbooks, both dog-eared and smeared with sauce, as a present when I moved into my new apartment—a little reminder of childhood during my first steps into adulthood. In the summers, my father swears by the rack-of-lamb marinade, and when my parents hosted their friends' weekly rotating poker game, my mom would make "Chili for a crowd." (I can never persuade her to nix the canned black olives—she insists upon sticking with the Silver Palate recipe, which she claims has never failed her.)
My impulse buys were relatively tame this time around: a jar of sour cherries from Turkey and three gold-coated almonds.
I remember eating the Silver Palate's signature dish a few times, too: Chicken Marbella, which Kim Severson describes as "a rather unremarkable baked-chicken dish that draws its character from prunes, olives, and capers. Just mention it to any decent cook old enough to have had her own apartment in the 1980s and you will get both an eye roll and a nostalgic smile."
I didn't have my own apartment in the 1980s, but I do now, so when I invited my parents over for dinner, the natural choice was the eye-roll-inducing chicken dish. When I looked at the recipe, though, there were two problems. First, the recipe called for overnight marinating. My parents were coming in eight hours. Secondly, the dish seems so ... eighties. How was I going to pay homage to my childhood culinary memories?
Then, something occurred to me. The Mediterranean flavors, the prunes and olives, were reminiscent of a Moroccan tagine. Why not a Chicken-Marbella-inspired lamb tagine instead? And so it was that I happily walked to Kalustyan's, what my friend refers to as "a chef's playground," to get my ingredients.
Kalustyan's stocks a wide array of exotic spices and foods. Down one aisle you'll find tri-colored couscous (which I snatched up as an accompaniment) and cold-pressed rice oil, down another frozen samosas and lychee puree, down another gold-coated almonds ($35.99 per pound) and tamarind candy. For the lamb, I got some dried fruit and nuts and a packet of ras el hanout, a Morrocan spice mixture I've yet to find anywhere else. I spied a carton of labne, a middle-eastern strained yogurt, in the fridge, and grabbed it, along with some pita, for appetizers. My impulse buys were relatively tame this time around: a jar of sour cherries from Turkey and three gold-coated almonds (they almost cracked my teeth and tasted like plywood, but eating them made me feel like the Shah of Manhattan).
I wandered through the farmers' market on my way home and was shocked to see tomatoes. Tomatoes in January? I spoke with the farmer, who assured me that the tomatoes, grown hydroponically, would be flavorful, so I bought a few and decided to throw them in a cucumber, tomato, and onion salad with lemon juice—something light to balance out the heavy meat course.
At home, I got the tagine started. It's similar in technique to my braised short ribs—not too much active work, lots of simmering, and then a reduction at the end. I added olives, prunes, and raisins (Chicken M, I didn't forget about you), and a handful of blanched almonds for a little crunch, then went about my business for the next two hours, stirring occasionally.
Couscous takes only a few minutes to make, so I took out the labne and made an extra-garlicky tzatziki by rubbing three large cloves of against a microplane grater (the second time I ever used the tool). Then I added grated cucumber and the juice of a lemon, and I had to restrain myself from breaking out the pita early.
It proved difficult to have a normal conversation when my parents arrived, as I'd told them I'd be writing about the evening later on. When my mother took a bite of the labne, she said "This is awful!" I looked at her, surprised. Then, she broke character: "No, no, sweetie, it's wonderful! I just though it would be more interesting for the article if there was some sort of ... controversy." I brought up the Silver Palate theme of the dinner and mentioned Chicken Marbella, and my mother gave a knowing nod, then relaxed. "I see you already have an idea for the article, no need to act crazy," she said.
My father, however, couldn't control himself. When I brought out the tagine, which looked beautiful served in big blue bowls over a bed of tri-colored couscous, he took a bite, thought for a moment, cleared his throat, and said, "I do declare, there is a veritable, um, cornucopia of flavors in this bite." (There, Dad. I put the quote in.) He went back for seconds. I exhaled, satisfied that I'd honored Chicken Marbella with a successful millennial remix.
Alas, the hydroponic tomatoes were just like all the January tomatoes I've ever had: grainy, tough, unflavorful. I'll wait until summer to use tomatoes in a salad again, but my impulse buy ended up making a nice dessert: I served the sour cherries over ice cream. My parents left full and happy, and as I shut the door, I felt a pang that I wasn't going uptown with them.
The neighborhood where I grew up has changed markedly over the past 20 years, and there are only a handful of stores from my childhood still in business. The Silver Palate has since shuttered its doors and been replaced by a high-end clothing store, no holiday cookies in sight. Now, at least, I know I'll be able to keep a part of my childhood alive in my own kitchen.