When I was a teenager, I always enjoyed being invited to my best friend’s home for dinner. Kate’s mom was an innovative cook, and it was in her dining room, in 1979, that I first had …
When I was a teenager, I always enjoyed being invited to my best friend’s home for dinner. Kate’s mom was an innovative cook, and it was in her dining room, in 1979, that I first had Chicken Marbella—a dish made famous by the owners of a tiny gem of a gourmet shop in Manhattan called the Silver Palate. After the meal, Kate and I would bring in the plates and platters from the table, and I was stunned by the condition of the kitchen. To say it was in disarray does not do the scene justice. Every surface was covered with jars, bottles and boxes; gravy, flour and shriveled herbs were on the floor, counters and walls. The sink was filled with dirty pots, pans and utensils. I’ve no doubt that the clean-up took much longer than both the preparation and consumption of the meal.
The situation in my home was entirely different. As my mother cooked, she returned to the cabinets and fridge any ingredient she’d taken out and used. A dish towel was always within reach, and she swiped at drips and spots as they occurred. Bowls and utensils were either washed by hand or slipped into the dishwasher once she was done with them. I was taught to tackle preparing a meal in the same manner as she and realize now what good habits my mom passed on to me. Most important, she practiced a technique professional chefs use to assemble meals quickly, efficiently and with ease. It is called mise en place (meez ahn plahs) and translated from the French it means “everything in its place.” Before cooking begins, ingredients are measured, cut, peeled, sliced, or grated and placed close at hand in bowls of various sizes. Restaurants more often use metal bins, as their mise en place is on a larger scale.
This way of organizing and arranging the ingredients is not only seen in France, where it is de rigueur, but also in Chinese and Indian cooking (among others) where many ingredients, spices and herbs play an important role in the preparation of any dish. Chefs who have written food memoirs, among them Anthony Bourdain and Gabrielle Hamilton, boast about their “meez” as it is affectionately referred to in their world. It is not only a system or philosophy, but also an ethical code. Without it, a busy restaurant kitchen would fall behind and subsequently unravel completely.
I have only shared a kitchen with a handful of people. Everyone has different styles and approaches, and cooking with another person can be as disastrous as finding yourself incompatible with a traveling companion you thought would be a great match. Dennis, a friend and professional chef, turned out to be a dream to work with. We both found the experience exhilarating as we experimented with exotic ingredients; to my surprise, he often graciously deferred to me when decisions had to be made.
My sister-in-law, Wendy, and I prepared many a Thanksgiving feast together, each quietly working at our own pace on dishes we had decided beforehand each would tackle. We schmoozed while we cooked, admired each other’s prowess, and felt a great bond as we later served the family the food we had planned together weeks in advance.
Eileen and I became close friends unexpectedly. We were brought together through discovering we both possessed a passion for food and cooking. She and her husband lived around the corner from me until they tired of the city and made the move to Cochecton Center in Sullivan County. I visited her upstate often and we always cooked interesting meals together, often with local ingredients. Our pace was completely different. Eileen moved slowly and laboriously, and I’ve always cooked rapidly, often finishing two or three components of our meal to her one. However, there was no competition regarding our styles, and we had great fun cooking together, wine flowing freely as we did.
It pains me to say I could not cook alongside my brother, Buzz, who was a terrific and experimental chef who loved ethnic foods, as I did, but who was controlling, unbending and with whom I butted heads every time we attempted to work together.
And finally, there was my dear childhood friend, Katie. With everyone I mentioned above, despite different styles of cooking, we all used mise en place and prepared in an organized way. Katie and I cooked many meals together from the time we were preteens into our early 20s. As I ran around returning ingredients to the cabinets and handwashing dirty utensils and bowls, Kate created the mayhem that she’d picked up from her mother. We were both accomplished young cooks who somehow worked well together although we had totally different approaches. Kate could cook in a storm. I prefer calm waters.
(adapted from the Silver Palate cookbook)
Marinating the chicken overnight is essential to the flavor and moistness of the finished dish.
3 pounds chicken parts (4 or 5 each of drumsticks and thighs)
2 garlic cloves, grated or finely minced
2 tablespoons dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Spanish sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons very small capers, preferably in salt, rinsed well
10 pitted best-quality French, Italian, or Spanish green olives (such as Picholine or Nyon)
10 pitted prunes
3 bay leaves
4 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 cup sherry or white wine
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
In a large bowl, combine the chicken pieces, garlic, oregano, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange chicken, olives, capers and prunes in a single layer in a large shallow baking pan and spoon marinade over it evenly. Pour sherry or wine around the pieces and sprinkle evenly with brown sugar. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, basting frequently with pan juices. While chicken is cooking, make a roux, which will be used to thicken the sauce. In a small skillet, melt the 2 tablespoons butter over low heat. When melted, add the flour and whisk to combine. Cook roux, stirring, for about three minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. Remove chicken from oven and turn on the broiler. Broil chicken pieces, skin side up, for 3 minutes, until skin is lightly browned. Remove chicken pieces, olives, capers and prunes to a platter. Whisk a tablespoon of the roux into the pan juices to thicken sauce. If necessary, whisk in the other tablespoon. Ladle the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle the pieces with the parsley. Serve immediately or at room temperature.