August 1, 2007
I normally host a big birthday bash every year, or at least that's what I've done the past four summers, inviting friends, old and new, to celebrate the fact that it is late July and the weather is nice and Paris is empty and I'm a year wiser.
But this time, no.
I was a little bummed to break from this young tradition, for I really do enjoy these parties, but the past few months have been a whirlwind, I feel I haven't had a moment to stop and smell the strawberries, and I am in dire need of a vacation, so the last thing I wanted to do was add a big project on my plate. Just the thought of it made me want to go and hide under heaps of shoes in the back of our walk-in closet, which, you may be interested to learn, the French call le dressing.
But it wouldn't be quite right to bid the previous year adieu without some sort of gathering, so I decided I would still cook dinner for the small circle of my closest friends, sticking mostly to tried-and-true, make-ahead recipes.
The evening opened on glasses of fine sangria, made with a mix I'd recently been given as a present -- it consists in flavored sugar and dried fruits that you marinate in red wine overnight, and I merely added frozen melon balls in lieu of ice cubes. With that we nibbled on slices of saucisson from Savoie, and little toasts spread with either my sardine and harissa mousse or my neighbor Stephan's eggplant caviar, which I expressly request from him each year.
We then moved on to a buffet-like spread that included my red quinoa salad, made this time with mixed roasted vegetables (tomatoes, red bell peppers, zucchini, and onions) and toasted pistachios; Stephan's green salad with shrimp and honey vinaigrette; my attempt at a savory cheesecake, which needs more work before I can decently share a recipe; and caramelized chicken thighs.
The latter is a dish that Pascale made for me eons ago (okay, two years). I'd kept the recipe in my files under the name Le Poulet d'Alisa, as she had rechristened it, in honor of the mutual friend who had given it to her in the first place. It originated in fact as the Silver Palate's Chicken Marbella, but you can trust three successive cooks to make it shift a bit from the original.
The recipe has you marinate chicken thighs with green olives and prunes until the next day, when you simply bake the whole thing, basting the meat often, until it is nicely glazed and browned with crusty bits on the outside, but still moist and tender at heart.
Easier than pie and highly flavorful with its sweet and briny Mediterranean accents, the dish went down very well with our guests. I just wish I hadn't completely forgotten the final sprinkling of cilantro and toasted almonds. Oh well, that just went into the leftovers salad for lunch the next day.
And for dessert, I had baked one of my favorite cakes in the whole cake world, the blueberry coffee cake, to which I'd added a layer of pecans -- toasted, roughly chopped, and tossed with a little maple syrup. We had it with my friend Marie-Laure's fruit salad, another item without which my birthday wouldn't quite be my birthday.
Caramelized Chicken with Green Olives and Prunes
- 8 free-range chicken legs (thigh + drumstick, about 3kg or 6 1/2 pounds total), cut in two at the joint
- 130g (3/4 cup) green olives
- 300g (10 oz) pitted prunes, roughly chopped (I use kitchen shears)
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed (I used a rounded teaspoon organic garlic paste)
- 4 bay leaves
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup sherry vinegar (vinaigre de xérès in French)
- 3 rounded tablespoons dried oregano (I used organic oregano from Crete)
- Fine sea salt, freshly ground pepper
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- the leaves from 1 small bunch fresh cilantro (flat-leaf parsley can be substituted)
- 1/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Serves 10 to 12.
Start the recipe the night before. In a large salad bowl, combine the chicken, olives, prunes, garlic, and bay leaves. In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, and oregano. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Pour over the chicken, and combine until the marinade coats the chicken thoroughly; it works immeasurably better if you use your hands. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Remove from the refrigerator an hour before baking. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Place the chicken in a baking dish large enough to accommodate it in a single layer (I had to use two).
Pour the remaining marinade (and any remaining solids) over the chicken, sprinkle with the sugar, and add the white wine. Place in the oven and bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hour, basting and flipping the thighs every 20 minutes or so, until the juices run clear, the meat is caramelized, and your boyfriend says that really, that chicken smell is torture.
Sprinkle with cilantro and almonds, and serve.
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