Culinary gem still shines brightly after 25 years

New edition celebrates the silver anniversary of `Silver Palate Cookbook'

May 23, 2007|By Regina Schrambling | Regina Schrambling,Los Angeles Times

New York City in the early '80s was a very dangerous place. My first apartment was cater-cornered to the Silver Palate and, within 23 months of moving in, I had switched careers. Proximity to that amazing food, first in the jewel box of a takeout shop and then in the proprietors' groundbreaking cookbook, both emboldened me to start giving parties and helped seduce me into cooking for a living.

Countless other Americans clearly felt the ripple effect from the Silver Palate far from Columbus Avenue. Friends of mine who worked for a slick entertaining magazine, with real dinner parties photographed in live time around the country, lamented that hostesses in nearly every state inevitably had one idea for the main course: Chicken Marbella. This dish with prunes, olives and capers encapsulated the allure of The Silver Palate Cookbook - deceptively easy recipes that sounded as if the cook hung out with jet-setters.

Not surprisingly, that easily spoofed recipe gets huge play in the new edition just published to mark the 25th anniversary of what to loyalists is the true Joy of Cooking. A full-color photo inside and another on half the back cover are devoted to the chicken served across America, thanks to Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, with co-author Michael McLaughlin.

And with this commemorative reissue (The Silver Palate Cookbook 25th Anniversary Edition, $30), Workman Publishing is bringing back a place and a time when American food was just kicking into high gear, when entertaining became an accessible idea and cooking a socially acceptable profession.

The recipes managed to be groundbreaking but familiar, sophisticated but approachable. Even better for a shaky cook and timid hostess, every single one worked. What you saw in the shop is what you got at home, but even if you were out in Iowa, you could experience Manhattan.

The first year my consort and I owned the cookbook was a blur of fresh pesto and gazpacho, chicken Dijonaise and beef carbonnade, two-step chocolate-toffee bars and twice-baked potatoes with cheese and chiles. This was our go-to book for mimosas and quiche, homemade mayonnaise and chilled blueberry soup, lentil salad and Linzer torte.

The Silver Palate, with its offhandedly charming illustrations and snappy side notes, eased us into gravlax and strudel, balsamic vinegar and creme fraiche, fresh basil and no end of chevre. Would we have ever attempted gougeres and profiteroles without such a clear road map?

Unlike with Joy of Cooking, the editors and publisher have not meandered down the road to ruin through reinvention. A newbie who buys The Silver Palate today will open essentially the same gem I did a quarter-century ago.

The introduction has been revised, a few more descriptions of cheeses and other ingredients have been added, and color photographs now bump up against Lukins' endearing illustrations from the original. References to "sweet butter" have been changed to "unsalted butter," although the quantities remain as unstinting as they were before the fat-free craze afflicted America.

Adding the glitzy photography was unfortunate, in the same way transforming the hippie-dippie classic Moosewood Cookbook with typeset rather than handwritten recipes would be. If it helps a novice to see what carrot cake dripping with cream-cheese frosting looks like, the upgrade works. But if you like to fantasize about Provence, the appeal of the grand aioli platter is conveyed much better through the gauzy filter of lyrical prose and airy illustration than dead-on photography. The thrill is gone.

Another risk of trying to improve on something that's already wonderful: Glitches happen. The recipe for Asparagus Strudel, for instance, calls for a 1/4 pound of asparagus when it should be 3/4 pound. As a result, grease is the word.

The photography and the occasional typo can be forgiven when you add up how much has been retained, whether it's the macaroon recipe using condensed milk or the outstanding (and party-pleasing) Asparagus en Croute using white bread. All my favorite recipes are still here, including Walnut-Oil Vinaigrette, Creamy Garlic Dressing, Sesame Mayonnaise for Asparagus and especially the Molasses Cookies, almost saucer-sized, chewy, buttery and spicy.

All of them are still fit for company.

Silver Palate's original edition has 2.3 million copies in print, despite the fact that its authors never did what today's cookbook moguls feel they must (start magazines, star in television shows, endorse products).

They parted ways, closed the shop and sold the company, although their distinctive red label lives on in supermarkets and fancy-food shops nationwide. Rosso now runs an inn in Michigan, while Lukins is the longtime food editor of Parade magazine. McLaughlin died in 2002.

Workman boasts that it has printed 150,000 copies of the new edition, which would be a huge number for a new cookbook.

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