'A friend in the kitchen'

'Silver Palate' authors mark special 25th anniversary

Posted: August 02, 2007

FOR A GENERATION of children now approaching their mid-20s, the garlicky, briny scent of chicken Marbella signifies a family celebration. Its sophisticated, international flavors and appealing textures proved so popular that the dish remains a buffet perennial. Who thought, in the early '80s, of cooking chicken with capers and prunes?

Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, authors of "The Silver Palate Cookbook," where the recipe first appeared, can think of no better way to be remembered. The pair hopes that those children will turn to the book as they begin cooking for their own families.

First published in 1982, the book has more than 2.3 million copies in print. The cookbook launched a do-it-yourself mantra that influenced a generation of cookbook authors. Now it has been freshened with color photos and some new content in a 25th anniversary edition (Workman, $19.95).

Some of those familiar with "Silver Palate" and its authors were a bit taken aback by the pair's promoting the new edition. Rosso and Lukins had a fairly public falling-out some years back but, they say, neither can remember what it was about.

The women parted company in 1988 and didn't speak to one another for years. That's all in the past now, they say.

"Sheila and I feel like we've picked up where we left off and didn't miss a beat," Rosso said. "It was much ado about nothing."

Certainly, the same cannot be said about their seminal cookbook.

Rosso and Lukins founded the tiny (11-by-14-feet) gourmet takeout company, The Silver Palate, which broke all the rules when it opened on Manhattan's Columbus Avenue 30 years ago. Five years later, the namesake book was a bestseller from the get-go.

"It was the beginning of food interest and entrepreneurship," said Rosso, who with her husband, Bill Miller, now runs the Wickwood Inn in Saugatuck, Mich. "I've given talks on The Silver Palate at Wharton and the Stanford School of Business, and I remember these smart kids saying, 'How do I start this business?' I'd tell them, 'Don't ask your lawyer, don't ask your mother. If it's the right idea, it will go straight from your heart to your gut.' "

She's speaking from experience, of course. Rosso was an advertising executive when she met Lukins, who catered a party for Rosso. They discovered a mutual passion for good food, and the rest is the stuff of culinary history. (Rosso's Web site, wickwoodinn.com, reminds readers that "The Silver Palate Cookbook" was admitted to the James Beard Foundation's Cookbook Hall of Fame in 1992.)

But a lot of the things that passionate foodies take for granted these days - fresh herbs, ingredients like balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil - were unknown to the mainstream when they opened The Silver Palate. Chicken Marbella was the first entree the little store offered.

"The food landscape was pretty bleak when the book was published the first time," Rosso recalled. "You were excited at the market if there was flat-leaf parsley, and if we could get dill, it was a good day."

Lukins, who has spent the past 25 years as food editor of Parade magazine and has written seven more books, remembers those as epic days for the food world.

"We opened the same year as Dean & DeLuca [a renowned New York specialty grocer] and Julee and I got a lot of attention because we were two women in business together," Lukins said.

Their success prompted them to develop a signature line of condiments, from mustards and chutneys to salad dressings. This, too, was a nearly immediate hit.

"We made our own products one summer at the store," Rosso recalled. "Gordon Segal [co-founder of Crate and Barrel] and Burt Tansky [now of Neiman Marcus, then of Saks Fifth Avenue] had heard about the renaissance of Columbus Avenue, so they came up within a couple of days of each other and asked us if they could put our stuff into their Christmas catalogs."

With some national exposure behind them, Rosso said, "we were doing blueberry chutney and fudge sauce, and we convinced these two guys that we would do sampling, which no one had done before. Isn't that incredible?"

So Rosso went on the road, hiring Junior League members to hand out samples in cities across the country.

"There weren't specialty food stores all over then, so I'd visit a city and see who was doing the best job of selling, the best merchant, whoever he was. It might be a gift shop, a cheese shop, a department store," she said.

Rosso laughed as she remembered those days. "I do feel sort of like an antique, but it [the book] still feels fresh and new and alive. The fact that so many people have loved it and bought copies for their kids or learned to cook from it" amazes her, she said. "The best compliment we get is that [the book] feels like a friend in the kitchen."

For Lukins, who still lives in New York, revisiting the book's recipes before releasing the new edition indicated that the "friend in the kitchen" should be a wiser, healthier version of its earlier self.

"It wasn't a question of making the new book a diet book, but nobody cooks like that anymore," she said of the prodigious amounts of olive oil and lavish use of butter in the original. "So we made adjustments in this book where appropriate. I took the raw egg out of the gazpacho, things like that. We did go over all the baking recipes, retested and retimed them. All of the chicken recipes, we retimed; I thought they didn't cook at a high enough temperature and they needed to cook longer."

Still, the book holds up well, she said.

"The recipes are easy to cook, they're not foreboding and they don't call for weird ingredients," Lukins said. "Both my daughters [Annabel, 34, of Boulder, Colo., and Molly Burke, 32, of New York] make that linguine with tomatoes and basil."

And it's time for a new generation to make its own traditions.

"I hope that some of the children of some of the mothers who love this book will be able to use this book," Lukins said.

"A lot of them tell me that their mother had this book, and that they enjoy it as much as their mothers did."

Chicken Marbella, anyone? *

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