Editor's note: Sheila Lukins, who, as an author of four Silver Palate cookbooks, helped usher in the new American cooking of the 1980s, died Sunday at 66, in New York of brain cancer.
We are reprinting this appreciation of Lukins — along with her recipe for Chicken Marbella — by St. Petersburg Times food critic Laura Reiley, who wrote about her when The Silver Palate Cookbook turned 25 in 2007. To read a Q&A with her by Reiley, go to blogs.tampabay.com/dining.
The lineup was Sesame Street, Electric Company, then Julia Child, after which Mom would retreat to the kitchen, inspired.
We didn't know what she did in there, but the upshot was usually dinner. Sometimes it was dinner that was hard to pronounce or dinner in fancy sauces. Occasionally she prepared something so daunting that it was smuggled to the collie underfoot.
So when I went to college you'd think I'd be adequately prepared. Sadly, I was an avid eater, not a cook. A high school graduation present, The Silver Palate Cookbook, was my first baby step toward culinary independence. Given by family friends, the inscription still reads, "To help you continue in the fine culinary traditions your mom has introduced you to at home!" I found the exclamation point annoying, but ultimately galvanizing.
Its cover a frayed mess, the book now falls open to recipes that were in heavy rotation in the mid 1980s. The most cherished recipes won't open at all, pages gummed together with drips of who knows what. I loved this book — it was hipper than Joy of Cooking (which had 10 pages devoted to canning and 56 casserole recipes, for crying out loud) and not as intimidating as Julia's seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking (what college kid needs in-depth coverage of aspics and forming quenelles?).
Silver Palate heralded an exuberant time in American home cooking: sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, roasted red peppers, soft brie and crumbles of goat cheese. These were the ingredients that authors Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins nudged gently into our daily repertoire. If I leaf through my old copy, I can point to the recipes that composed my first adult dinner party (the carrot orange soup followed by chicken Dijonnaise and finishing with chocolate mousse), a good first date (a kicky pasta puttanesca and another chocolate mousse) and a bad one (a first try at cassoulet, pearls before swine, and I mean swine).
And now Silver Palate has had its silver anniversary. The updated version (Workman, $19.95) has color photos and lots of superlatives on the back from all corners of the gastronomic stratosphere.
It's still the same book, with chatty tips, a bit of humor and a heavy reliance on the bright flavors of fresh herbs, olives, capers and such. Years ago, Rosso (now Rosso Miller) and Lukins had a serious quarrel resulting in a major rift. It troubled me to think of them at odds with each other; as I read their recipes I heard the two of them over my shoulder, like longtime buddies advising a new one about their own trials and errors. (A reconciliation has recently been reported.)
Their original venture, also called the Silver Palate, is a tiny food shop on the Upper West Side of New York. It opened in 1977, aimed at serving working women. Rosso Miller now runs the Wickwood Inn in Saugatuck, Mich., and Lukins is the food editor of Parade magazine. But their book, 25 years later, still serves this working woman — a midweek dinner, a weekend party — only now I'm more discerning about for whom I'll undertake cassoulet.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.